Russia’s nuclear arsenal has long been a concern for the Pentagon in terms of both sheer size and technological capacity. Indeed, Russian President Putin could launch a nuclear strike that could surely kill everyone on planet Earth if he wished – when factoring in the size of his arsenal and radioactive fallout.
and it is now further expanding with the prospect of hypersonic nuclear weapons and new ICBM modifications enabling a single missile to carry multiple warheads.
Sheer numbers, when it comes to Russia’s nuclear arsenal, have long been a concern both in terms of tactical and conventional nuclear weapons.
Russia’s ICBM arsenal, for instance, is growing much larger and being modernized for continued relevance. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation estimates that Russia has 306 strategic ICBMs, able to carry as many as 1,185 nuclear warheads.
The Center further specifies that both Russia’s SS-27 mod 1 (Topol-M) and SS-27 Mod 2 (Yars) are capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. An ICBM with multiple re-entry vehicles presents new threat dimensions as it can hold multiple targets at risk from a single ICBM. Russia also has the Sarmat SS-X-30 in development, which is slated to be larger and more lethal than previous warheads and has publicly demonstrated what could be a paradigm-changing and extremely dangerous nuclear-capable hypersonic missile called the Avangard.
There are several critical things to consider here, one of which being the presence of sheer numbers as it can present the risk of a “bolt-out-of-the-blue” kind of attack. This is a term that refers to the possibility that an adversary could simultaneously launch a large number of ICBMs in one “salvo” to obliterate defenses and overwhelm the enemy in such a way that a response or counterattack is not possible. Should an air or sea leg of a nuclear triad be rendered inoperable as a way to counter any salvo, then the remaining deterrent is to simply ensure a corresponding massive offensive ICBM response to guarantee the destruction of the attacking country.
Timing is critical here, as the targeted country would need to detect an incoming salvo quickly enough to launch its own massive salvo in response. The promise of this kind of catastrophic destruction is the foundation of strategic deterrence and the paradoxical reason why the assurance of massive destruction can actually ensure continued peace.
“Bolt-out-of-the-Blue” & The U.S. Sentinel
Sufficient numbers of effective and operational ICBMs will be critical for the U.S. nuclear deterrence posture given the scope and size of Russia’s force. The Nuclear Threat Initiative states that Russia operates a total of 466 ICBMs and submarine-launched, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles together.
The size of Russia’s arsenal may be one reason why the U.S. Air Force plans to add as many as 400 new Sentinel ICBMs to the force as part of a massive modernization overhaul for the service’s nuclear posture. Of course the 1950s-era Minuteman IIIs, while massively upgraded and still functional, have long exceeded their anticipated service life and have been in need of replacement. Some have even expressed concern that there could be a short nuclear “readiness” gap between when the new Sentinels start to arrive at the end of the decade and the existing Minuteman IIIs become fully obsolete.
Air Force Acquisition Executive Andrew Hunter has been clear that the Sentinel is on schedule and on time and slated to arrive in sufficient time, stressing that there will be no gap. This is perhaps why the Pentagon continues to test Minuteman IIIs in an effort to demonstrate that the U.S. has a functional and effective ground-fired nuclear deterrent sufficient to extend well into the next decade.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.