Russia – The Nuclear potential in 2022

Russia - The Nuclear potential in 2022

As of February 23rd, 2022, some of the Russian delivery vehicles that are deployed near Ukraine are considered to be dual-capable, meaning that they can be used to launch either conventional or nuclear weapons; however, at the time of publication, we have not seen any indication that Russia has deployed nuclear weapons or nuclear custodial units along with those delivery vehicles.

Russia is in the late stages of a decades-long modernization of its strategic and nonstrategic nuclear forces to replace Soviet-era weapons with newer systems. In December 2021, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported that modern weapons and equipment now make up 89.1 percent of Russia’s nuclear triad, an increase from the previous year’s 86 percent (Russian Federation)[1]. The 2021 modernization activities apparently exceeded the projected gains for this year, as President Putin’s 2020 end-of-year address estimated that the modernization percentage would be 88.3 percent by the end of 2021. In previous years, Putin’s remarks have emphasized the need for Russia’s nuclear forces to keep pace with Russia’s competitors: « It is absolutely unacceptable to stand idle. The pace of change in all areas that are critical for the Armed Forces is unusually fast today. It is not even Formula 1 fast—it is supersonic fast. You stop for one second and you start falling behind immediately »[2].

Russian President Vladimir Putin in the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine ordered his country’s nuclear-deterrence forces to be put on alert, a reminder of the threat posed by the war. Russia has more than 1,500 warheads deployed on strategic long-range systems and almost 3,000 in reserve, according to an assessment published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Russia has invested in a variety of ways to employ those warheads, including land-based ballistic missiles that could reach the U.S. and Europe, submarine-based missiles, and bombs and missiles that could be deployed from aircraft. Has President Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons ? Not explicitly. The Russian president on Feb. 27 raised the alert level of Russia’s nuclear forces, though not to the highest level. He previously warned countries supporting Ukraine that there could be « consequences you have never seen. » A far-reaching constitutional referendum in Belarus that concluded Feb. 27 ended the country’s status as a nonnuclear state.

What are NATO’s nuclear capabilities in Europe ? While the U.S. and NATO don’t disclose exact figures for European-deployed weapons, the Arms Control Center estimates 100 U.S.-owned nuclear weapons are stored in five NATO countries. The U.K. said last year it would reverse years of nuclear disarmament and increase the number of warheads to a new ceiling of 260, over 40% above its previous threshold. France is estimated to have just under 300 warheads, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, deployable by submarine or air-launch. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Feb. 27 said the country was planning to buy Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 combat jets as he pledged to increase defense spending. Germany, which doesn’t have its own nuclear weapons, is part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement. Buying F-35s that are also designed for a nuclear role would sustain Germany’s ability to drop U.S.-owned nuclear bombs. The German government on March 14 said it was moving forward with the acquisition of 35 of the radar-evading jets, with the goal of phasing out the Tornado planes now used in the nuclear role by 2030. The F-35s would be stationed at the same Buechel air base, the Luftwaffe said. So Could President Putin use tactical nuclear weapons? Russia also has an unknown number of tactical or so-called nonstrategic nuclear weapons that could be used on the battlefield, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Such weapons are less powerful than strategic nuclear weapons, though their explosive yield can vary widely. The NTI says these warheads aren’t connected up to delivery systems but kept in central storage facilities. The U.N. atomic agency has warned of the threat posed by war in a country with 15 nuclear reactors at four sites, a concern renewed when a Russian projectile caused a fire at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Ukrainian authorities said a power cut caused by Russian attacks on Kiev could deprive the Chernobyl nuclear site of power, leading to a potential meltdown of spent nuclear fuel, though the U.N. agency played down risks of an imminent problem at the site. The Ukrainians keeping the abandoned nuclear plant safe are ill-fed and desperate for relief. The U.S. has invested heavily into the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads although it has no effective defense against Russia’s nuclear forces and has no plans to develop such a capacity. The limited anti-missiles system the U.S. has are aimed at a North Korean threat. And the U.S. systems have had a mixed success rate in testing.

In his 2021 end-of-year speech, President Putin also noted that he is « extremely concerned about the deployment of elements of the US global missile defense system near Russia. » In particular, he accused the United States of using its missile defense deployments as a guise to deploy offensive systems targeted at Russia: « The Mk 41 launchers located in Romania and planned for deployment in Poland have been adapted to the use of the Tomahawk strike systems » (Russian Federation 2021a). Officials from the United States and NATO deny that the launchers have been adapted for use of Tomahawk missiles. Putin also noted his disappointment with the deterioration of the US-Russia arms control regime, and stated that Russia needed « long term, legally binding guarantees […] because the United States easily withdraws from all international treaties, which for one reason or another become uninteresting to them––easily, explaining something or nothing at all without explaining how it was with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, [the Treaty] on Open Skies » (Russian Federation 2021a). Russia’s nuclear modernization programs, combined with an increase in the number and size of military exercises and occasional explicit nuclear threats against other countries, contribute to uncertainty about Russia’s long-term intentions and growing international debate about the nature of its nuclear strategy. These concerns, in turn, stimulate increased defense spending, nuclear modernization programs, and political opposition to further nuclear weapons reductions in Western Europe and the United States. As of early 2022, experts estimate that Russia has a stockpile of approximately 4,477 nuclear warheads assigned for use by long-range strategic launchers and shorter-range tactical nuclear forces, which is a slight decrease from last year. Of the stockpiled warheads, approximately 1,588 strategic warheads are deployed: about 812 on land-based ballistic missiles, about 576 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and possibly 200 at heavy bomber bases. Approximately another 977 strategic warheads are in storage, along with about 1,912 nonstrategic warheads. In addition to the military stockpile for operational forces, a large number—approximately 1,500—of retired but still largely intact warheads await dismantlement, for a total inventory of approximately 5,977 warheads. With only two days remaining until its expiration in March 2021, Russia and the United States mutually agreed to an extension of New START that will keep it in force through February 4, 2026. In advance of New START coming into force in 2018, Russia significantly reduced (downloaded) the number of warheads deployed on its ballistic missiles to meet the treaty limit of no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. Russia achieved the required reduction by the February 5, 2018 deadline, when it declared 1,444 strategic warheads attributed to 527 launchers (Russian Federation Foreign Affairs Ministry 2018). The most recent data exchange, declared on September 1, 2021, listed Russia with 1,458 deployed warheads attributed to 527 strategic launchers (US State Department, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance 2021a). These numbers differ from the estimates presented in this Nuclear Notebook because the New START counting rules artificially attribute one warhead to each deployed bomber, even though Russian bombers do not carry nuclear weapons under normal circumstances. Additionally, this Nuclear Notebook counts weapons stored at bomber bases that can quickly be loaded onto the aircraft as « deployed. »

Russia (like the United States) could potentially upload several hundreds of extra warheads onto their launchers but is prevented from doing so by the New START treaty limit. The treaty provides an important node of transparency for both Russia’s and the United States’ strategic nuclear forces: as of January 2022, the United States and Russia have completed a combined 328 on-site inspections and exchanged 23,100 notifications (US State Department, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance 2022). Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, on-site Type One and Type Two inspections were paused in April 2020. Inspections were set to restart on November 1, 2021 (Post 2021), but that did not happen. The first meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission since the pandemic began took place in October 2021 (US State Department, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance 2021b). Due to New START limitations, Russia appears to have been forced to reduce the warhead loading on some of its missiles to less than maximum capacity. Experts do not know the breakdown of the loading because Russia, unlike the United States, does not publish an unclassified overview of its strategic forces. However, the reduction may have involved scaling back the number of warheads on each SS-18 and SS-27 Mod 2 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), as well as on each SS-N-32 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). This demonstrates that New START places real constraints on Russia’s deployed strategic forces. The result appears to be an increased reliance on a strategic reserve of non-deployed warheads that can be loaded onto missiles in a crisis to increase the size of the force––a strategy similar to the one the United States has relied on for several decades. Russia’s nuclear modernization program is motivated in part by the Kremlin’s strong desire to maintain overall parity with the United States and by national prestige, but also by the Russian leadership’s apparent conviction that the US ballistic missile defense system constitutes a real future risk to the credibility of Russia’s retaliatory capability. Policy and strategy aside, the development of multiple weapon systems, rather than focusing resources on one or two, also indicates the strong influence of the military-industrial complex on Russia’s nuclear posture planning (Luzin 2021).

What is Russia’s nuclear strategy? The international debate about Russia’s nuclear strategy has reached a new level of intensity, particularly after the Trump administration published its Nuclear Posture Review in February 2018. The Nuclear Posture Review claimed that « Russian strategy and doctrine emphasize the potential coercive and military uses of nuclear weapons. It mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict on terms favorable to Russia » (US Defense Department 2018, 8). Specifically, the document claimed, « Moscow threatens and exercises limited nuclear first use, suggesting a mistaken expectation that coercive nuclear threats or limited first use could paralyze the United States and NATO and thereby end a conflict on terms favorable to Russia. » This so-called « escalate to de-escalate » doctrine « follows from Moscow’s mistaken assumption of Western capitulation on terms favorable to Moscow » (US Defense Department 2018, 30). The former head of the US Strategic Command, Gen. John Hyten, reacted to « Russia’s destabilizing doctrine on what some call escalate to deescalate » by saying: « I really hate that discussion. I’ve looked at the Russian doctrine. I’ve looked at Russian writings. It’s not escalate to de-escalate, it’s escalate to win. Everybody needs to understand that » (Hyten 2017). Some have suggested that Russian leaders are signaling a willingness to use nuclear weapons even before an adversary retaliates against a Russian conventional attack by « employing the threat of selective and limited use of nuclear weapons to forestall opposition to potential aggression » (emphasis added) (Miller 2015). The implication is that Russia would potentially use nuclear weapons first to scare an adversary into not even defending itself. Such characterizations conflict with Russia’s publicly stated policy. In June 2020, President Putin approved an update to the « Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence, » which notes that « The Russian Federation considers nuclear weapons exclusively as a means of deterrence. » The policy lays out four conditions under which Russia could launch nuclear weapons:
1- « arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
2- use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
3- attack by adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions; and
4- aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy » (Russian Federation Foreign Affairs Ministry 2020).

The document’s emphasis on deterrence by punishment, as well as the « defensive » nature of Russia’s nuclear weapons, is likely intended to be a response to the aforementioned US claims of a Russian « escalate-to-deescalate » policy. The updated policy is also consistent with remarks that President Putin made to the Valdai Club in October 2018, when he stated that : « Our nuclear weapons doctrine does not provide for a pre-emptive strike. » Rather, he continued, « our concept is based on a reciprocal counter strike … This means that we are prepared and will use nuclear weapons only when we know for certain that some potential aggressor is attacking Russia, our territory » (Russian Federation 2018a). This is additionally consistent with previous iterations of Russian nuclear policy, which has largely remained unchanged since President Putin came to power in 2000 (Russian Federation 2014, 2010). Although some initial reports interpreted Putin’s 2018 Valdai Club comments to mean that Russia might be adopting a nuclear no-first-use policy, this does not seem to be the case; his remarks were more likely meant to respond to the US Nuclear Posture Review’s claim that Russia has lowered its threshold for first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict (Stowe-Thurston, Korda, and Kristensen 2018). Because Putin’s comments imply that Russia would only use nuclear weapons in retaliation against an existential threat, independent analysts have challenged the Nuclear Posture Review’s characterization of the Russian strategy as overblown and a misreading of Russia’s nuclear doctrine.

Whatever Russia’s nuclear strategy is, Russian officials have made many statements about nuclear weapons that appear to go beyond the published doctrine, threatening to potentially use them in situations that do not meet the conditions described. For example, officials explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons against ballistic missile defense facilities, and in regional scenarios that do not threaten Russia’s survival or involve attacks with weapons of mass destruction (The Local 2015). Moreover, the fact that Russian military planners are pursuing a broad range of upgraded and new versions of nuclear weapons suggests that the real doctrine goes beyond basic deterrence and toward regional war-fighting strategies, or even weapons aimed at causing terror. One widely-cited example involves the so-called Status-6—known in Russia as « Poseidon » and in the United States as « Kanyon »—a long-range nuclear-powered torpedo that a Russian government document described as intended to create « areas of wide radioactive contamination that would be unsuitable for military, economic, or other activity for long periods of time » (Podvig 2015). A diagram and description of the proposed weapon, first revealed in a Russian television broadcast, can still be seen on YouTube (YouTube 2015). The weapon, which is under development, appears designed to attack harbors and cities to cause widespread indiscriminate collateral damage in violation of international law. Russia’s Strategic Rocket Force currently deploys several variants of silo-based and mobile ICBMs. The silo-based ICBMs include the SS-18, SS-19, SS-27 Mod 1, SS-27 Mod 2, and the mobile ICBMs include the SS-25, SS-27 Mod 1, and SS-27 Mod 2. In December 2021, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov declared that 95 percent of Russia’s strategic missile forces are continuously ready for combat use (RIA Novosti 2021a). In December 2021, the commander of the country’s Strategic Rocket Forces, Col. Gen. Sergei Karakaev, stated in an interview with Krasnay Zvezda (“Red Star”), the official newspaper of the Russian Ministry of Defense, that the ratio between mobile and siloed launchers in each regiment is « approximately equal; » however, the number of nuclear warheads assigned to each silo-based missile regiment is « currently somewhat larger » than the mobile regiments because of the siloed SS-18 ICBM, which can carry large numbers of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). In total, the ICBMs carry about 60 percent of Russian deployed strategic warheads (Krasnaya Zvezda 2021a). Based on what it is observed via satellite images, combined with information published under New START by various US government sources, Russia appears to have approximately 400 nuclear-armed ICBMs, which we estimate can carry up to 1,185 warheads. The size of the force that it is observed, however, is difficult to square with statements made by Russian officials. Since 2016, and again most recently in December 2019, Karakaev has stated to Russian news agencies such as TASS that Russia had approximately 400 ICBMs on combat duty (TASS 2016a; Andreyev and Zotov 2017; Karakaev 2019). But since Russia declared 527 deployed strategic launchers in total as of September 2021, a force of 400 ICBMs would mean Russia only deployed 127 SLBMs and bombers, which seems unlikely (US State Department, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance 2021a). It is possible that Karakaev is referring to all ICBMs in the inventory (including those in storage), not just those that are deployed. Modernization of the ICBM force also involves equipping upgraded silos with new air- and perimeter-defense systems, and the new Peresvet laser has been deployed with at least five road-mobile ICBM divisions for the purpose of « covering up their maneuvering operations » (Russian Federation Defense Ministry 2019a; Sanders 2021).

The ICBMs are organized under the Strategic Rocket Forces in three missile armies with a total of 12 divisions consisting of approximately 40 missile regiments. The regiment in the missile division at Yurya operates ICBMs that are believed to serve as a back-up launch code transmitter and are therefore not nuclear-armed. The ICBM force has been declining in number for three decades, and Russia claims to be 83 percent of the way through a modernization program to replace all Soviet-era missiles with newer types by the early 2020s on a less-than-one-for-one basis (Krasnaya Zvezda 2021a). Currently, the remaining Soviet-era ICBMs include the SS-18 and the SS-25. According to Col. Gen. Karakaev, 36 missiles regiments are now equipped with modern strategic missile systems––20 of which are mobile regiments and 16 of which are siloed regiments (Krasnaya Zvezda 2021a). However, Karakaev may be including siloed regiments which are currently undergoing infrastructure upgrades to prepare them for future Sarmat deployments. In 2022, Russia plans to place four more missile regiments on combat duty, which will amount to a scheduled increase of 21 launchers: the first SS-X-29 Sarmat regiment at Uzhur, one silo-based SS-19 Mod 4 Avangard regiment at Dombarovsky, and two mobile SS-27 Mod 2 Yars regiments in Vypolsovo and in the Kirov region, possibly at Yurya (Krasnaya Zvezda 2021a; Russian Federation 2021a). The SS-18 (RS-20 V or R-36 M2 Voevoda) is a silo-based, 10-warhead heavy ICBM first deployed in 1988. It is reaching the end of its service life, with approximately 40 SS-18s that can carry up to 400 warheads remaining in the 13th Missile Division at Dombarovsky and the 62nd Missile Division at Uzhur. It seems that the number of warheads on each SS-18 has been reduced for Russia to meet the New START limit for deployed strategic warheads. The SS-18 is scheduled to formally begin retiring in 2022, when the SS-X-29 (Sarmat or RS-28) ICBM will begin to replace it at the Uzhur missile field (Krasnaya Zvezda 2021a). Commercial satellite imagery indicates that the 302nd Missile Regiment at Uzhur has already been disarmed in order to accommodate for Sarmat-related upgrades to the regiment’s silos. The silo-based, six-warhead SS-19 (RS-18 or UR-100NUTTKh), which entered service in 1980, appears to have been retired from combat duty. A small number of converted SS-19s are being deployed with two regiments of the 13th Missile Division at Dombarovsky as the SS-19 Mod 4 with the new Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles. In October 2021, Russian officials announced that the service life of the SS-19 had been extended until at least 2023; this is probably to allow the missile’s boosters to be used for the Mod 4 Avangard deployment (RIA Novosti 2021b). Russia continues to retire its SS-25 (RS-12 M or Topol) road-mobile missiles at a rate of one or two regiments (nine to 18 missiles) each year, replacing them with the SS-27 Mod 2 (RS-24). Eighteen SS-25s were scheduled to be dismantled by November 2022 (Weaponews 2017; RIA Novosti 2020b). There remains some uncertainty about how many SS-25s are fully operational. Garrison upgrades used to involve significant rebuilding, but satellite images indicate that Russia has started to upgrade the garrisons by simply replacing the SS-25s with the new SS-27 launchers and their service vehicles, which are maintained under camouflage nets. It is estimated that as few as nine SS-25s remain in the active force, and it is believed that the last SS-25 missile will be removed from service by the end of 2024 (TASS 2021b). The new ICBMs include two versions of the SS-27: the Mods 1 and 2. It is estimated that these two versions now carry more warheads than all the remaining SS-18s. The SS-27 Mod 1 is a single-warhead missile, known in Russia as Topol-M, that comes in either mobile (RS-12 M1) or silo-based (RS-12 M2) variants. Deployment of the SS-27 Mod 1 was completed in 2012 with a total of 78 missiles: 60 silo-based missiles with the 60th Missile Division in Tatishchevo, and 18 road-mobile missiles with the 54th Guards Missile Division at Teykovo. Russian officials indicated in 2019 that the Topol-M units eventually will be upgraded to RS-24 Yars as well. The focus of the current and larger phase of Russia’s modernization is the SS-27 Mod 2, known in Russia as the RS-24 (Yars), which is a modified SS-27 Mod 1 (or Topol-M) that can carry up to four multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). During an interview with Col. Gen. Sergei Karakaev in December 2020, the Russian Defense Ministry’s TV channel declared that approximately 150 mobile- and silo-based Yars had been deployed by the Strategic Rocket Force (Zvezda 2020). It is estimated that as of January 2022, this number has grown to approximately 173 mobile- and silo-based Yars missiles. SS-27 Mod 2 upgrades now appear to be complete at the 39th Guards Missile Division at Novosibirsk, the 42nd Missile Division at Nizhny Tagil, the 14th Missile Division at Yoshkar-Ola, and the 29th Guards Missile Division at Irkutsk. Although these divisions now all have been equipped with the SS-27 Mod 2, some of the garrisons are not equipped to accommodate all the vehicles required to support the launchers and will continue to undergo construction for several years. After several years of temporarily basing the 382nd Guards Missile Regiment at a temporary open-air location, commercial satellite imagery now indicates that the possible permanent garrison is nearing completion.

The 35th Missile Division at Barnaul appears to be nearing completion of its rearmament to the SS-27 Mod 2. The first regiment at Barnaul (the 479th Guards Missile Regiment) went on preliminary combat alert duty with the Yars in September 2019 and full combat duty in December 2019 (Russian Federation Defense Ministry 2019c). The Barnaul division formally accepted its second Yars regiment (the 480th Missile Regiment) in December 2020 (RIA Novosti 2020a). In March 2021, Col. Gen. Karakaev announced that the entire Barnaul division would be re-armed with Yars ICBMs by the end of the year, and given that Karakaev did not include further plans for the Barnaul division in his 2022 rearmament schedule, it is possible that rearmament at this division is now largely complete (Russian Federation Defense Ministry 2021b). The next mobile ICBM division to be upgraded is the 7th Missile Division at Vypolsovo. The Vypolsovo division, which is the smallest ICBM division with only 18 launchers, started early preparations for the upgrade in 2019 (Tikhonov 2019), and it is possible that one of its two regiments has already stood down its SS-25 launchers. In January 2022, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the Vypolsovo division would be rearmed with SS-27 Mod 2 missiles in 2022 (Interfax 2022). The 28th Guards Missile Division at Kozelsk is the only silo division with SS-27 Mod 2 and continues to expand: the first regiment (the 74th Missile Regiment) officially began combat duty with its full complement of 10 missiles in November 2018, after initially being declared operational (likely with just six missiles) in 2015 (Russian Federation Defense Ministry 2018b). Satellite pictures show that upgrades of the second regiment (the 168th Missile Regiment) are complete, as was confirmed by Col. Gen. Karakaev at the end of 2020. (TASS 2020l). In December 2021, Col. Gen. Karakaev stated that the third missile regiment at Kozelsk (the 214th Missile Regiment) had been placed on combat alert; however, satellite imagery suggests that the necessary infrastructure upgrades have only taken place at a couple of silos and are still ongoing. His statement might indicate that a portion of the regiment has reached some prelimary readiness status. Given the time it took to complete the upgrades of the first two regiments at Kozelsk, it remains to be seen whether the Yars upgrade can be fully completed by 2024 as scheduled. Apart from the missiles and silos themselves, the ICBM upgrade involves extensive modification of external fences, internal roads, and support facilities. Each site is also receiving a new « Dym-2 » perimeter defense system including automated grenade launchers, small arms fire, and remote-controlled machine gun installations (Krasnaya Zvezda 2021a; Russia Insight 2018). Final development and deployment of a compact SS-27 version, known as Rubezh (Yars-M or RS-26), appears to have been delayed at least until the next armament program in the late 2020s (TASS 2018a). A rail-based version known as Barguzin appears to have been canceled.

Russia is also developing the heavy SS-X-29, or Sarmat (RS-28), which will begin replacing the SS-18 (RS-20V) at Uzhur in 2022. Three ejection tests were conducted in December 2017, March 2018, and May 2018 at the Plesetsk Space Center, involving the cold launch and test firing of the Sarmat’s first stage and booster engine. The closing test stages, which will include a test launch with the 62nd Missile Division at Uzhur, were supposed to be completed by the end of 2020; however, this has been continuously delayed, partly due to a manufacturing delay for the missile’s command module (War Bolts 2022). The first Sarmat flight test is now scheduled for the first quarter of 2022 at the new Severo-Yeniseysky proving ground (TASS 2021a) and will be followed by several more tests. If these tests are successful, Sarmat will officially be handed over to the military and serial production will begin. As of March 2020, Sarmat’s industrial production line reportedly had completed all the necessary upgrades to prepare for serial production (TASS 2020a). There are many rumors about the SS-X-29, which some in the media have dubbed the « Son of Satan » because it is a follow-on to the SS-18, which the United States and NATO designated « Satan » —presumably to reflect its extraordinary destructive capability. Rumors that the SS-X-29 could carry 15 or more MIRV warheads, though, seem exaggerated. We expect that it will carry about the same number as the SS-18 plus penetration aids. It is likely that a small number will be equipped to carry the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, which are currently being installed on a limited number of SS-19 Mod 4 boosters at Dombarovsky. If the SS-X-29 replaces all current SS-18s, it will be installed in a total of 46 silos of the three regiments at the Dombarovsky missile field and four regiments at the Uzhur missile field (six regiments of six missiles and one regiment of 10 missiles). In December 2020, Col. Gen. Sergei Karakaev announced that the first Sarmat missiles would be « put on alert » at Uzhur sometime in 2022 (Krasnaya Zvezda 2020a). It appears that the first regiment to receive Sarmat might be the 302nd Missile Regiment; upgrades to the regiment’s silos are clearly visible on commercial satellite imagery, indicating that the regiment’s SS-18s have already been removed.

The new Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle is designed to evade missile defenses and is initially being fitted atop modified SS-19 missiles (SS-19 Mod 4) at Dombarovsky and possibly later on SS-X-29 missiles at Uzhur. Russia is currently deploying the new weapon at a rate of two per year: the first two missiles at Dombarovsky began combat duty on December 27th, 2019, followed by another two in December 2020 (TASS 2019f; Russian Federation Defense Ministry 2020a). The regiment received its final two missiles—achieving a full complement of six missiles––in December 2021 (Russian Federation 2021a). The first two missiles in the second Avangard regiment will reportedly be placed on combat duty in 2022 or 2023, with the entire regiment completing its rearmament by the end of 2027 to coincide with the completion of the current state armament program (Krasnaya Zvezda 2021a; TASS 2021c). Similar to the new silos at Kozelsk, the modified Dombarovsky silos appear to have some form of perimeter defense system. In December 2021, Karakaev stated that « a new mobile ground-based missile system » is being developed (Krasnaya Zvezda 2021a). It is possible that this refers to the Osina-RV ICBM, a follow-on system reportedly derived from the Yars ICBM (War Bolts 2021). Flight tests of the siloed system are expected within the next couple of years. Russia has also recently commenced work on its strategic « Kedr » project; however, it remains unclear whether Kedr refers to a specific type of next-generation ICBM, or whether it is the name of the overall campaign to develop a new suite of next-generation strategic missile systems (TASS 2021p). While the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review anticipated that Russian missile forces will increase over time, the evidence for this still is not clear. The US National Air and Space Intelligence Center predicted in 2020 that « the number of missiles in the Russian ICBM force will continue to decrease because of arms control agreements, aging missiles, and resource constraints » (US Air Force 2020, 26). With the ongoing modernization, the force level will likely level out as the modernization program is completed, although the modernized force will be able to deliver more warheads if all the single-warhead Topol-M (SS-27 Mod 1) ICBMs are replaced with MIRVed Yars (SS-27 Mod 2). According to Col. Gen. Karakaev, Russia has conducted more than 25 ICBM test launches over the past five years, and plans to conduct at least ten ICBM launches in 2022, indicating a significant increase in test frequency (Krasnaya Zvezda 2021a). The Strategic Rocket Force often test-launches its missiles to the Sary-Shagan test site in Kazakhstan. However, given that Kazakhstan is a state party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons––which entered into force in January 2021––it is unclear whether the country will continue to allow Russia to use its test site at Sary-Shagan for its ICBM launches. Article 4(2) of the treaty notes that each state party must ensure « the elimination or irreversible conversion of all nuclear-weapons-related facilities » (United Nations 2017). This would necessarily include Sary-Shagan, which would be considered nuclear weapons-related infrastructure if it is still being used for ICBM testing. This means that Kazakhstan faces a tough decision over whether to fully comply with the treaty and risk souring relations with Russia, or whether to dilute its compliance. This potential compliance issue could be the reason why Russia is building a new proving ground for its Sarmat tests at Severo-Yeniseysky, a decision which was announced in December 2020 (Russian Federation 2020a).

Russia is also developing a nuclear-powered, ground-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile, known as 9M730 Burevestnik (NATO’s designation is SSC-X-9 Skyfall). This missile has faced serious setbacks: According to US military intelligence, it has failed nearly a dozen times since its testing period began in June 2016 (Panda 2019a). In November 2017, a failed test resulted in the missile being lost at sea, which required a substantial recovery effort (Macias 2018). A similar recovery effort in August 2019 resulted in an explosion that killed five scientists and two soldiers at Nenoksa; the explosion’s connection to Skyfall was confirmed by US State Department officials in October 2019 (DiNanno 2019). Due to these setbacks, it is possible that the Burevestnik program has been put on pause; there were no declared tests of the system in 2020 or 2021 and, unlike other elements of Russia’s nuclear forces, it was not mentioned in Defense Minister Shoigu’s year-end remarks in either year. In August 2021, satellite imagery appeared to indicate that Russia was preparing for another test of the Burevestnik system at Novaya Zemlya; however, it is unclear whether such a test actually took place (Lewis 2021; Cohen 2021).

Nonstrategic nuclear weapons – Russia is updating many of its shorter-range, so-called « nonstrategic » nuclear weapons and introducing new types. This effort is less clear and comprehensive than the strategic forces modernization plan but also involves phasing out Soviet-era weapons and replacing them with newer but fewer weapons. New systems are being added, which prompted the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review to accuse Russia of « increasing the total number of [nonstrategic nuclear] weapons in its arsenal, while significantly improving its delivery capabilities » (US Defense Department 2018, 9). In the longer term, though, the emergence of more advanced conventional weapons could potentially result in reduction or retirement of some existing nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Regardless of the number, the Russian military continues to attribute importance to nonstrategic nuclear weapons for use by naval, tactical air, and air- and missile-defense forces, as well as on short-range ballistic missiles. Part of the rationale is that nonstrategic nuclear weapons are needed to offset the superior conventional forces of NATO and particularly the United States. Russia also appears to be motivated by a desire to counter China’s large and increasingly capable conventional forces in the Far East, and by the fact that having a sizable inventory of nonstrategic nuclear weapons helps Moscow keep overall nuclear parity with the combined nuclear forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

After the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review was published, defense sources distributed inaccurate and exaggerated information in Washington that attributed nuclear capability to several Russian systems that had either been retired or were not, in fact, nuclear. Moreover, although the Nuclear Posture Review claims that Russia has increased its nonstrategic nuclear weapons over the past decade, the inventory has in fact declined significantly—by about one-third—during that period (Kristensen 2019). Moreover, although the Trump Nuclear Posture Review stated that Russia has « up to 2,000 » nonstrategic nuclear weapons and defense officials frequently have claimed it has more than 2,000, the US Defense Intelligence Agency’s Worldwide Threat Assessment in 2021 stated that « Russia probably possesses 1,000 to 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear warheads » (US Defense Intelligence Agency 2021, 54). The range reflects difference estimates within the US intelligence community; the military uses the higher number. Rumors emerged in early-2022 that some in the Intelligence Community believe the number of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons could increase significantly—potentially doubling—by 2030 (Bender 2022, Kristensen 2022). It is estimated that Russia today has approximately 1,912 nonstrategic nuclear warheads, potentially fewer, assigned for delivery by air, naval, ground, and various defensive forces. Although there are many rumors about additional nuclear systems, there is little authoritative public information available. This estimate, and the categories of Russian weapons that have been describing in the Nuclear Notebook for years, was echoed by the Nuclear Posture Review, which stated: « Russia is modernizing an active stockpile of up to 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear weapons, including those employable by ships, planes, and ground forces. 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 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and Moscow’s antiballistic missile system (US Defense Department 2018, 53). »

The Nuclear Posture Review also said: « Russia possesses significant advantages in its nuclear weapons production capacity and in nonstrategic nuclear forces over the US and allies. It is also building a large, diverse, and modern set of nonstrategic systems that are dual-capable (may be armed with nuclear or conventional weapons). These theater- and tactical-range systems are not accountable under the New START Treaty and Russia’s nonstrategic nuclear weapons modernization is increasing the total number of such weapons in its arsenal, while significantly improving its delivery capabilities. This includes the production, possession, and flight testing of a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Moscow believes these systems may provide useful options for escalation advantage. Finally, despite Moscow’s frequent criticism of US missile defense, Russia is also modernizing its long-standing nuclear-armed ballistic missile defense system and designing a new ballistic missile defense interceptor (US Defense Department 2018, 9). »

[1] « Expanded meeting of the Defence Ministry Board – Vladimir Putin visited the National Defence Control Centre where he took part in an annual expanded meeting of the Defence Ministry Board. »

[2] Ibid