Russia has spent billions on military modernization. How powerful are Putin’s forces? Every year in October Russia conducts (and usually announces) a major strategic nuclear exercise. This is followed by November meetings in Sochi between President Vladimir Putin and his generals concerning Russia’s nuclear and military programs, often accompanied by the release of a substantial amount of information about Russia’s modernization programs. This effort’s high point is a meeting just before the Western Christmas on Russian nuclear and military modernizations attended by President Putin and the senior Russian nuclear military leadership hosted by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The major difference in 2020 was the delay of the annual strategic nuclear exercise until December, presumably because of the U.S. election. Russia’s emphasis on the importance of its strategic nuclear weapons in its late 2020 public statements was remarkable even by Russian standards. The information released on strategic nuclear forces was far greater than for “general purpose forces,” which is Cold War terminology that reflects that nearly all Russian missiles, strike aircraft, warships, and artillery systems are nuclear-capable.
The intent behind any Russian information release concerning its nuclear and military forces is to intimidate or scare the West in order to achieve Russian foreign policy objectives. Russia is much more secretive concerning its non-strategic 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 President Putin’s statements 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 non-strategic nuclear weapons in any future arms control negotiations. Pressure was particularly strong during the Trump administration. Indeed, Russia continues to increase its force of non-strategic nuclear weapons. According to distinguished Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer:
After 1991, as the Cold War ended, the U.S. unilaterally retired and eventually scrapped almost all of its non-strategic 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 non-strategic 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 2017 Defense Intelligence Agency report on Russia Military Power states that Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons “…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. There may also be warheads remaining for surface-to-air and other aerospace defense missile systems.”
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 report stating that “The Russians are going to 8,000 plus warheads.”
Jamestown Foundation Russia Analyst Pavel Baev has observed that “…Moscow has invested so much in modernizing its strategic capabilities that it is compelled to nonetheless keep advertising and demonstrating its nuclear might.” According to STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles A. Richard:
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.
Nuclear weapons have a much higher fear factor than conventional weapons because they are vastly more lethal. The limited amount of information released in late 2020 on Russia’s plans for its 2021 modernization of Russia’s “general purpose” forces suggests Putin’s failed economic policies, Covid-19 and Western sanctions have slowed their military modernization programs. The Russian non-strategic Aerospace Force (Air Force) appears to have taken the worst hit. While the scope of nuclear modernization may also have been somewhat impacted, the massive nuclear modernization program is still intact. Dr. Maxim Starchak of the U.K.’s Queen’s University Center for International and Defense Policy has documented many small discrepancies in Russia’s 2020 strategic nuclear forces accomplishments compared to the program announced in December 2019, which he attributed to Covid-19. Since Russian leaders tend to make projections based on best case assumptions, slips in availability dates are common. Moreover, Russia says it has already modernized 86% of its strategic nuclear forces and modernization is continuing. The difference between General Shoigu’s and Admiral Richard’s 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 new 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 is zero.
Endorsements of the Significance and Priority of the Strategic Nuclear Forces
Senior Russian officials making statements concerning military modernization in recent months have made strong endorsements of the strategic nuclear forces’ importance and priority. In November 2020, at Sochi, President Putin declared, “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.” Also, at Sochi, President Putin announced his new nuclear bomb proof nuclear command and control bunker. Indeed, strategic nuclear force modernization was the only thing publicly discussed at the Sochi meetings. This is unusual. The high emphasis on the strategic nuclear forces should be of great concern since Russia will very likely introduce nuclear weapons first in any major conflict.
On December 21, 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. This is of fundamental importance to ensure our national security and preserve strategic parity in the world. We discussed this specifically, in detail during our most recent session of meetings last November in Sochi.”
In December 2020, the Russian Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu said, “Our nuclear triad is maintained at a level that warrants strategic deterrence. 95% of the Strategic Missile Forces launchers are in constant readiness.” In January 2021, General Shoigu reiterated 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.”
According to the 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 …Nuclear weapons are considered as a means of forcing a potential adversary to refuse to unleash aggression against our country.”
Putin’s statement in Sochi about Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons’ importance is particularly interesting in light of his June 2020 decree on nuclear deterrence, which established a very low threshold for nuclear weapons first use. Worse, there is evidence that the actual Russian threshold for nuclear weapons use is even lower. Indeed, in August 2020, distinguished Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer warned, “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.”
Russian Strategic Nuclear Modernization
According to President Putin, “…our Army and, most importantly, our nuclear triad have reached the level that guarantees Russia’s security.” He said that modernization of the strategic nuclear forces had reached 86% and that it would increase to 88.3% by the end of 2021. (By comparison, claimed Russian modernization of the general purpose forces is 70% or more.) Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu provided more detail:Our strategic nuclear forces’ high combat readiness is ensured by the unprecedented level of our modern arms, which stands at 86 percent. This year, three missile regiments of the re-[e]quipped strategic missile forces were reequipped with Yars missiles. The 1st regiment continues to be reequipped with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle. The aviation strategic nuclear forces have been armed with five upgraded Tu-95 MS missile carriers.The Navy has received a flagship Borei-A class nuclear-powered submarine Knyaz Vladimir armed with Bulava ballistic missiles and cutting-edge systems for overcoming missile defence. Modern infrastructure has been created for the Yars and Avangard missile systems. This year over 950 structures and facilities have been built for the strategic missile forces.
Regarding reequipping of Russian strategic nuclear forces in 2021, General Shoigu said, “The strategic missile forces must receive 13 launchers with Yars and Avangard ICBMs. Using the additional allocations for the manufacture of these systems, we must reach the level of 88.3 percent for modern strategic nuclear forces. We must complete the construction of infrastructure for Yars and Avangard systems in Kozelsk, Yasnoye, Uzhur, Novosibirsk, and Yoshkar Ola. We also need to complete the Severo-Yeniseysky proving ground for the Sarmat missile system’s summer tests and start state tests of the upgraded Tu-160 aircraft. The Navy will receive two Borei-A class nuclear-powered submarines, Knyaz Vladimir and Generalissimo Suvorov, equipped with Bulava ballistic missiles.”The increase in strategic nuclear force modernization in 2021 from 86% to 88.3% is not actually a small increase. General Shoigu’s announcement indicated that Russia in 2021 would deploy 45 new ICBM and SLBMs, which is high by the standards of recent years. Since Russia has 510 deployed strategic delivery vehicles (as of September 2020), a mere two percent increase in modernization in 2021 likely means that the new SLBM launchers on Borei-class submarines will be added to the existing force rather than replace older systems. Unless some other factor is in play, 45 new missile launchers should represent an almost 8% increase in modernization. Thus, for the increase in modernization to only be from 86% to 88.3% in 2021, it must mean that either: 1) 32 “modern” launchers (presumably Delta IV) will be retired in 2021, or, 2) the Russians are expanding their SLBM force with the two new Borei missile submarines. In light of Russian objectives, force expansion is more likely. In 2018, TASS reported that Russia planned 14 Borei ballistic missile submarines. Hence, it is likely that Russia will retain the Delta IV submarines as long as possible.When the Russian Defense Ministry says that a certain number of ICBM regiments were reequipped in a specific year, it means either that complete regiments were deployed or partially equipped regiments were topped off or a mix of the two. This formulation is used because it tends to exaggerate the amount of modernization since Russia’s intent is to scare us. For example, in 2019, they said they would put 22 new ICBMs on combat duty in 2020. That is apparently what they did, and it equates to just over two full regiments, not the three General Shoigu announced in December. The same thing will apparently happen in 2021. The announced increase of two regiments of Yars ICBMs does not match the announced deployment of 13 new ICBMs (apparently 11 Yars, the rest Avangards) in 2021. This probably means the two Yars regiments will be topped off.The reduction in planned new ICBM deployment to 13 ICBMs in 2021 could be real, or it could represent the diversion of missiles to a covert non-declared ICBM force. There is substantial evidence from statements by Colonel General Sergei Karakayev, Commander of the Strategic Missile Forces, that Russia is maintaining a covert force of mobile ICBMs, and a recent report in Russian state media (R.T.) suggests this covert force may be expanding. Colonel General Karakayev has repeatedly indicated that Russian had 400 combat ready ICBMs, about 100 more than can fit into their declared New START force structure.
Another of his statements implied that Russia has over 3,300 deployed nuclear warheads on its strategic forces. Again, that requires cheating probably involving the mobile ICBM force.Concerning the modernization of Russia’s ICBM force, in December 2020, Colonel General Karakayev said that 81% of the ICBM force has been modernized, that the new Sarmat heavy ICBM would operational by 2022, and that, “Maintaining the combat readiness of the required number of launchers, including during the period of rearmament, creating new missile systems, rearming the troops with advanced missile systems and laying the scientific and technological basis for creating new types of strategic weapons are among the steps aimed at future buildout and development for the short-term and mid-term perspective.” He indicated that “Domestic enterprises keep up with the pace of delivering elements of new missile systems to the troops, envisaged by the state procurement program. This applies primarily to the Yars missile system in the silo-based and the mobile variants and the Avangard silo-based [hypersonic] missile system. Altogether, this is about 20 launchers and supporting systems annually.”According to President Putin in November 2020, “About half of Strategic Missile Forces units have received the state-of-the-art Yars system.” The Yars ICBM is heavily MIRVed, reportedly capable of carrying up to six small warheads. In January 2021, Izvestia reported that the Yars-S with “medium yield warheads – are in the inventory right now.” This apparently explains a number of Russian press reports that the yield of the Yars is between 150-300 kilotons. This implies two warhead types. A 300-kt warhead would substantially increase capability against hard targets.In December 2020, Colonel General Karakayev said that the development of new ICBMs “…will begin in the short-and mid-term perspective.” TASS had previously reported that Russia would be developing a new, smaller mobile ICBM to replace the Yars. A follow-on to the Sarmat heavy ICBM is also possible since Russian modernization is never ending.
A recent press report states that Russia will revive its rail-mobile ICBM project that reportedly had been put on hold. This is critically important because rail-mobile ICBMs are not subject to New START Treaty limitations since ICBMs are not numerically limited under New START, and the definition of mobile launcher does not cover rail-mobile ICBMs. Another possibility would be a medium-size ICBM to replace the Soviet-era SS-19 ICBM. It is possible that one or more of these missiles might be a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle which, if tested properly, would not meet the New START Treaty definition of an ICBM and, hence, would not be limited by the New START Treaty. In December 2019, Russia revealed that it intended to complete the modernization of its strategic nuclear forces by 2024 and planned to deploy 20 regiments of the Sarmat by 2027. Russia did not update these completion dates in December 2020 or January 2021. Twenty regiments of Sarmat ICBMs are a ridiculous allocation of resources if there is any Russian intent to comply with New START 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.” Thus, 20 regiments add up to between 2,400 and 4,000 warheads on the Sarmat force alone. The New START Treaty supposedly limits both sides to 1,550 deployed warheads.The year 2021 is going to be a banner year for Russia’s strategic nuclear naval forces. General Shoigu’s statements above indicate that this year 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 Russian Federation’s history 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.In December 2020, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko said, “In all, it is planned to deliver 15 nuclear submarines of Projects Borei-A and Yasen-M in accordance with the current state armament program for the period until 2027.” This is significantly more than the previously announced program for both combined. Since his statement is an aggregate of two systems, it is not possible to determine the number of each that will be delivered. The Borei-A is the latest of the Russian strategic nuclear ballistic missile systems, and the Yasen-M is an improved multirole nuclear submarine with long-range nuclear-capable Kalibr cruise missiles and, in the future, the new hypersonic missiles. Michael Kofman and Jeffrey Edmonds of the Center for Naval Analysis have pointed out, “A single Yasen-class in the Atlantic can deliver thirty-two nuclear-tipped Kalibr missiles to the east coast. This is not a submarine one needs to have in large numbers.”
Because of dual capability and range of the new Russian cruise missiles, the distinction between Russian strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons is not all that important.Russian leaders did not mention the Husky “5th generation” nuclear missile submarine in these recent statements. This is not unusual since they were generally talking about short-term programs – what they were going to do in 2021. The Husky is about ten years in the future, and none are reportedly under construction yet. Moreover, there are so many announced Russian programs that they never talk about all of them at the same time.In November 2021, 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. 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.Russia’s missile modernization program with highly MIRVed systems is significant because it is exactly the opposite of what Russia should be doing if it intends to comply with the New START Treaty. They are spending a lot of money on missile systems they can’t deploy with anything like their full potential if they are complying with New START.
Russian Hypersonic Missiles
Senior Russian officials, including President Putin, constantly brag about their unique nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons. The Russian nuclear-armed Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle became operational in 2019. Russia added two additional Avangard missiles during 2020 and plans to complete the first regiment of Avangard missiles (6 launchers) by 2021. In January 2021, Deputy Minister of Defense Alexey Krivoruchko stated that the Tsirkon nuclear-capable hypersonic cruise missile would become operational on surface ships in 2022. After that, it will be deployed on submarines. The characterization of this weapon as strategic or non-strategic is somewhat arbitrary since Russian TV and TASS have talked about targeting the U.S. National Command Authority with this weapon. In January 2021, Izvestia reported that the Mig-31, the K version of which is capable of carrying Kinzhal nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles, would be deployed in the Arctic. Whether the Kinzhal is classified as a strategic or non-strategic nuclear missile is also somewhat arbitrary. TASS has reported that 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…based on the calculations of the Armed Forces General Staff, together with the Ministry of Industry and Trade.” 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 Bomber Modernization
Russian strategic nuclear bomber force modernization is continuing. This includes upgrades to existing bombers, new nuclear missiles and the development and deployment of new bombers. In February 2021, General 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, for the first time, Russia’s Defense Ministry revealed the planned production rate for the new version of Tu-160. 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. He added, “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.” He also said that work was underway on promising cruise and hypersonic aircraft missiles. Two of the new version of the Tu-160 (Tu-160M2) have already been produced. The announced Russian goal is at least 50 of the new version of the Tu-160. In January 2021, Krivoruchko said that Russian Tu-95MSM strategic bombers would be armed with hypersonic weapons and state-of-the-art long-range missiles, and their “combat characteristics will double.” 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. If true, 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. As discussed above, Russia has threatened to use these in a pre-emptive attack on the U.S. National Command Authority.Production of additional Tu-160s violates a Russian commitment not to produce additional Tu-160s under the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives.
Russian Strategic Missile Defense
Russian strategic missile defenses are a very high priority because they are part of Russia’s nuclear warfighting strategy. In December 2020, Russia announced that the S-500 missile and air defense system would be deployed with the troops in 2021. This represents a major increase in funding priorities. In December 2019, the announced IOC date was 2025. According to Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov, this will be “a simplified version of the S-500 system” now under state trials. The S-500 will be the major Russian defense system against strategic ballistic missiles. Aerospace Forces Commander Colonel General Sergei Surovikin has reiterated that “The system’s main job is to destroy medium-range ballistic missiles, and if need be, also warheads of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the final phase of their flight path. The S-500 system is capable of destroying hypersonic aerial vehicles, planes, and unmanned aerial vehicles.” The later version of the S-500 may have an improved anti-ICBM area defense capability. Russia says the S-500 is capable of intercepting missiles in near space. Russian surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) have a nuclear capability, According to Pavel Felgenhauer, this included the S-500, and that Russian SAMs have a surface-to-surface capability. Russia is also modernizing its Moscow missile defense system.
Russian General Purpose Forces Modernization
The recent relative secrecy about Russia’s general purpose forces modernization plans was reflected in Putin’s November 2020 decree on defense plans from 2020 to 2025, which revealed to the public no details. The December 2020 information release concerning Russian plans for general purpose forces in 2021 was relatively small. The 2021 procurement numbers were aggregated to the point it was generally impossible to figure out what was specifically planned. It is possible that the relative secrecy was motivated by economic limits on what they could do. In February 2021, General Shoigu said that the level of modernization in Russia’s general purpose forces would increase from 70% to 76% by 2024. Thus, modernization is continuing.More information was released in February 2021. General Shoigu stated, “Last year, the enterprises of the United Aircraft Corporation delivered 147 aircraft to the Armed Forces, including the first serial multi-purpose fighter Su-57. The upgraded Tu-160M and Tu-95MSM strategic missile carriers made their first flights. Two long-term contracts for the supply of Su-35S multi-purpose fighters and Su-34 fighter-bombers have been completed. This year, it is important to increase production of promising weapons – the Su-57 fifth-generation multi-purpose fighters, the new Il-76MD-90A heavy military transport aircraft.”The Su-57 (formerly called the Pak FA), which Russia claims is a 5th generation fighter, is one of Putin’s favorite weapons. In December 2020, General Shoigu stated that a total of 94 new aircraft, including 22 Su-57s, would be produced through 2024, and all 76 planned Su-57s would be procured by 2028. Russian claims that the Su-57 is a 5th generation aircraft is, however, an exaggeration. Its reported stealth level is nowhere near that of reported levels of the U.S. F-22 and F-35. Justin Brook of the Royal United Services Institute has compared the Su-57 with Western fighters as follows: “I would assess Russia’s Su-57, ‘Felon,’ is still some way from being a credible frontline weapons system due its sensor, engine and likely avionics immaturity, and the basic layout is lacking the basic design features required for a true low observable (stealth) signature. On the other hand, a mature Su-57 would allow the Russian Air Force to move beyond many of the core weaknesses of the Flanker family.”We should not fall into the trap of thinking about Russian missiles as if they were U.S. conventional missiles. Their dual capability gives them a military capability that ours do not have and, in the case of hypersonic missiles, will never have. Russia is well aware of this. The Pentagon has stated that the Su-57 is nuclear-capable. Russian state media (TASS) reports that the Su-57 will carry a smaller version of the nuclear-capable 2,000-km range Kinzhal hypersonic missile. In 2018, Putin said that the Kinzhal has a capability against both land and naval targets. The announced number of Su-57s is much higher than what was planned two years ago. Despite the enormous reported F-35 advantage in stealth capability, there is an enormous difference between the military potential of an aircraft armed with a 2,000-km range nuclear-capable hypersonic missile and an F-35 armed only with a nuclear bomb.
The Russians intend to augment the Su-57 with the Okhotnik combat drone. Russia is putting enormous effort into improving its drone capability. Noted British expert Roger McDermott estimates that Russia has produced 1,500 of them and states the S-70 Okhotnik has “unique supersonic reconnaissance and strike” capability and that it “uses stealth technology.”Advanced drone aircraft designed for high-intensity conflict is a capability the U.S. could have fielded 15 years ago but did not because of underfunding defense and the focus on terrorism as if it were the only threat to the U.S. before the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought reality to the assessment.In December 2020, General Shoigu said the ground forces have received “over 3,500 new and upgraded weapons, including 220 tanks and other armoured combat vehicles, and over 1,500 pieces of automotive equipment.” He said that in 2021 the Russian Army would get “500 modern armoured combat vehicles.” The two statements are not exactly symmetrical. It can even be read to mean armored vehicle production will be increased.In January 2021, TASS reported that Deputy Defense Minister Alexey Krivoruchko revealed the display of the “the newest RKhM-9 nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) reconnaissance vehicle…” The reason is that Russia plans to use these weapons in major wars. Chemical and biological weapons are banned by international conventions, which Russia is believed to be violating.In December 2020, General Shoigu said that the overall number of new and modernized aircraft procured decreased in 2021 to 100 from a level of 147 in 2020. This is clearly a substantial cut. However, the Su-57 is more expensive than the previous Flanker aircraft, and this is apparently limiting production numbers.In December 2020, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that the number of ground-, air- and sea-based long-range cruise missiles grew 37-fold during 2012-2020. As noted above, Russian cruise and hypersonic missiles are nuclear-capable. Russia, at the highest level, constantly brags about its unique hypersonic missiles. President Putin, Chief of the General Staff General Valeriy Gerasimov, and the Russian press have threatened the U.S. National Command Authority with hypersonic weapons to varying degrees of explicitness. The information that we have indicates that in 2021 and beyond, Russia will continue to place a high emphasis on increasing its arsenal of nuclear-capable long-range cruise and hypersonic missiles.In December 2020, General Shoigu said, “The Navy received 2 modern submarines, 7 surface ships, 10 combat boats, and 10 ships and support boats.” He said that in 2021 the plan was to equip the Navy with four new submarines, six surface ships and 22 boats and supply vessels. Remember, these numbers are aggregated and include strategic nuclear and general purpose nuclear-capable ships.
Russian Precision Weapons
In his December 2020 speech to the Russian military, President Putin stated, “The second point, it is as important to consolidate the potential of the non-nuclear deterrent capability, primarily high-precision weapons.” This formulation is unusual. The normal formulation is “high precision weapons,” apparently reflecting the fact that dual capability is the norm. Indeed, General Shoigu referred to them as “high precision weapons” in the same meeting and, once again, in February 2021. As noted above, this probably relates to a desire to avoid bringing attention to Russian non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons. On occasion, Russian leaders talk about conventional deterrent forces, but the weapons they are talking about are almost always nuclear-capable. The Russian stockpile of non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons is very large and expanding. Russian press estimates of the size of the Russian non-strategic nuclear arsenal are often much larger than those of the U.S. government (i.e., 2,000 and growing). This may reflect the fact that elements of the bureaucracy do not want to recognize the size and significance of this Russian capability. In 2014, Pravda 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 by 75% from Cold War levels equates to about the same number. Russian expert Sergei Rogov has noted that assessments of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons range between several thousand and over 10,000.
Pavel Felgenhauer has recently observed, “According to the pro-Kremlin pollster FOM, the majority of Russians (53 percent) consider the threat of nuclear war ‘real,’ with most believing the main threat is coming from the United States. Some 39 percent of Russians do not believe in an impending nuclear war with the West. But in the age bracket from 46 to 60 years old, some 63 percent of Russians consider the threat of nuclear war both real and imminent (Gazeta.ru, December 7).” They believe this because this is what they hear from their political leadership, which sees Russia as under siege from the West. Russian leaders often wax eloquent about the power of Russia’s nuclear superweapons, frequently making nuclear threats.According to STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles A. Richard:Unfortunately, our opponents invested in nuclear and strategic capabilities designed to constrain U.S. actions, test our alliances, and, if necessary, escalate past us—to include nuclear use. There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state. Consequently, the U.S. military must shift its principal assumption from “nuclear employment is not possible” to “nuclear employment is a very real possibility” and act to meet and deter that reality. We cannot approach nuclear deterrence the same way. It must be tailored and evolved for the dynamic environment we face.This is sage advice. Within a few days of the appearance of this article, Russian leaders were characterizing peaceful protestors within Russia as foreign agents, threatening to cut off relations with the E.U. and talking about political and military containment of the U.S. President Putin declared, “Our influence in the post-Soviet space has been growing no matter what, despite all difficulties.” President Putin regards Russian imperialism as perfectly legitimate, believing it can best be advanced by Russian nuclear and military power. According to Pavel Felgenhauer concerning Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov, “Ryabkov’s remarks apparently alluded to the threat of force up to and including a nuclear strike as part of a classical Cold War-era deterrence policy; but the Russian military offered more radical ideas.” There is renewed talk of massive pre-emptive attacks on NATO in Moscow. In irresolute and militarily deficient U.S. and West will only encourage this dangerous Russian policy.
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. This first appeared in early 2020.