Russian Strategic Forces in the Next Decade

Pavel Podvig

Aspen Institute Italia, News Analysis Series, No. 3/05, January 2005 (English PDF file, Italian PDF file)

Strategic nuclear forces occupy a very special place in the current Russian thinking about national security. The most common notion, shared almost universally by the leadership and the public, is that Russia needs a strong nuclear force to protect its status as a major power and to assert its influence in international affairs. This superpower rhetoric has grown especially strong in the last few years, even as Russia?s relations with its cold-war strategic competitor, the United States, significantly improved and both countries seem to agree that a possibility of a military confrontation between them is virtually nonexistent. Strategic nuclear forces get a large share of the military budget and Russia shows few signs of reconsidering the role that nuclear weapons can play in its national security strategy.

Although the Russian military may have preferred keeping most of the strategic systems built by the Soviet Union, political and economic realities of the post-Soviet period left them no choice of this kind. The transformation of the strategic forces that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union was anything but easy, but after a period of uncertainty and a bitter debate about the structure of the strategic forces Russia settled on a policy that calls for balanced development of all components of a traditional strategic triad ? land-based intercontinental missiles, strategic submarines, and long-range bombers. In general, the strategic forces managed to avoid radical transformation, preserving most of their organizational structure and institutional culture.

Now that the period of organizational changes has been largely over and most modernization programs have taken shape, we can look at the future of the Russian strategic forces to see how they would look like in about a decade. As we will see, none of the services that constitute the current strategic force is expected to change dramatically in the coming years. The Russian development program has very few surprises and the bounds of the nuclear force are fairly well defined.

Strategic Rocket Forces

Strategic Rocket Forces traditionally enjoyed a special status within the Soviet (and now Russian) strategic forces. In terms of the number of launchers and warheads, the missions that were assigned to them, as well as operational readiness of the force, Strategic Rocket Forces has always been the most significant part of the Russia?s strategic offensive potential. This is still to a large extent true ? more than 60 per cent of all nuclear warheads in Russia?s strategic arsenal are assigned to land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

At the end of 2004, Russia had about 600 deployed ICBMs that were capable of carrying almost 2400 warheads. These numbers, however, will change quite significantly in the coming years since Russia is decommissioning older missiles and deploying new ones. These two processes will determine the outlook of the Russian missile force for the next decade or even longer.

Of the five different types of intercontinental missiles that are currently in service, only one ? SS-27 Topol-M ? is a relatively new missile. The rest are missiles that were developed and deployed before the breakup of the Soviet Union, so most of them are nearing end of their operational lives and will have to be withdrawn from service in the next few years, so the number of deployed missiles will be reduced more than by half. The decrease in the number of ICBM warheads will be even more dramatic.

Among missiles systems to be eliminated are two solid-propellant missiles deployed in late 1980s ? rail-mobile SS-24, scheduled to end active service in 2005, and ground-mobile SS-25 Topol, which is expected to be withdrawn from service in the next two to three years. These missiles have already served beyond their original service life of about ten years, and keeping them in service even longer would probably require costly overhaul. Liquid-fuel missiles usually stay in service much longer, since their operational life is easier to extend. This allowed Russia to keep most of its SS-19 and SS-18 missiles, deployed in the early 1980s, in service for more than 25 years. This extension, however, also has its limits and it is likely that these old missiles will be removed from service in the next few years.

That will leave Russia with two missile systems to rely on ? about 50 relatively new SS-18 missiles and the new SS-27 Topol-M missiles that are currently being produced and deployed.

The SS-18 missile is a holdover from the cold war years ? this heavy missile can accurately deliver ten warheads and still have place for a package of decoys to help it penetrate any possible missile defense. The 50 or so missiles in question are the most advanced representatives of the SS-18 class, known as R-36M2 or RS-20V, that were manufactured in the late 1980s?early 1990s. If properly maintained these missiles could stay in service until about 2015-2020.

In addition to the old heavy multiple-warhead SS-18, Russia is deploying a new, relatively lightweight single-warhead missile ? SS-27 Topol-M. Development of this missile goes back to the Soviet days, but it was interrupted by the Soviet Union breakup. After years of delays and program reorganizations, Russia placed first missiles of this type into silos in 1997 and since then has deployed a total of 40 of them. This deployment is likely to continue at the rate of ten missiles every one or two years. At some point, probably in 2006-2007, Russia will begin deployment of the road-mobile version of the SS-27 missile, which is currently undergoing testing. However, the overall rate of deployment ? about ten missiles a year ? is unlikely to change.

As we can see, after removing older missiles from service by the end of this decade, Russia will have in its strategic force about 150 land-based intercontinental missiles, which would carry about 600 warheads. About 100 of these missiles (and warheads) will be single-warhead SS-27 Topol-Ms. This number might increase further, but is unlikely to grow much beyond 150-200 missiles before the time SS-18 missiles will start to retire, limiting the overall growth of the missile force. Taking this into account, 150 missiles and 600 warheads is still a fairly good estimate of the future of the Strategic Rocket Forces.

One of the uncertainties usually associated with the future of the Russian strategic forces and its ICBM program in particular is a possible Russia?s reaction to the U.S. missile defense program. Among the many concerns about missile defense is that Russia in response to its deployment would initiate a missile buildup aimed at protecting its capability to strike the United States. The need to counter missile defense is indeed one of the arguments that Russian political and military leaders invoke most often when they need to justify various development projects. However, in practical terms, it is extremely unlikely that Russia could undertake a buildup program that would take its missile forces beyond the projected 600 warheads.

The main reason for this is that the buildup has already happened ? as a result of the U.S. decision to proceed with missile defense and withdraw from the ABM Treaty, Russia withdrew from the START II Treaty and got to keep the heavy SS-18 missiles, which the treaty would have eliminated. Without these missiles the Russian ICBM force would be much smaller than it is currently projected. It is worth noting that this factor probably played a much bigger role in the missile defense debate than Russia is willing to acknowledge. The Russian military clearly preferred the status quo of keeping the heavy missiles in service for 15-20 more years to having to deal with large-scale deployment of new missiles. When the price of supporting the ABM Treaty ? removal of heavy missiles ? became clear, the Russian military seemed to have no problem choosing the missiles over the treaty. This choice quite strongly indicates that Russia?s opposition to missile defense may  not be as strong as it appears and even if the U.S. missile system eventually materialized Russia?s reaction would be quite moderate.

Strategic Fleet

In contrast to the Strategic Rocket Forces, the Russian strategic fleet is going through a period of high uncertainty. Ballistic-missile submarines have been traditionally considered in Russia as a more expensive and less reliable leg of the strategic triad compared to the land-based ballistic missiles. This attitude played its role in mid-1990s, when most of the funding available to the strategic forces went to development of the new ICBM and the development programs that were needed to provide seamless transition to a new generation of submarines and sea-based missiles were delayed for at least several years.

The core of today?s Russian strategic fleet is the six submarines of the Delta IV class. The total number of nuclear warheads that they can carry is 384 ? a submarine of this class carries 16 SS-N-23 missiles with four warheads each. The actual number of operationally available warheads is smaller, since two of the six submarines are undergoing overhaul. This overhaul seems to be part of the program to extend operational lives of the submarines by equipping them with newly manufactured missiles. This program is expected to be completed around 2008, so the submarines could stay in service until about 2020 or even longer.

The Russian fleet has strategic submarines of two other classes, but these are being decommissioned and are not expected to stay in service for much longer. Submarines of the first class, Delta III, were built in the late 1970s?early 1980s and are being withdrawn from active service due to their age. The second one, the Typhoon class, is a more interesting case. These submarines were built in the late 1980s and are not much older than Delta IVs that will be kept in service. However, Typhoons do not have missiles ? the ones that they initially carried, SS-N-20, have been retired because of age, while the development of the follow-on modification was cancelled in favor of a competing project in 1997. That project, however, was slow to materialize and as a result the Typhoon submarines were removed from service in April 2004. The only submarine of this class that is left has been reconfigured as a test platform for the new sea-launched ballistic missile.

The new missile in question, known as Bulava, is supposed to become the primary sea-based missile for the future Russian strategic fleet. It development program was initiated in 1997 (it was the competitor mentioned above) and initially it was proposed as a naval version of the SS-27 Topol-M missile. This seemed to be a good way to cut the development cost, but in reality it produced mostly delays and, quite likely, cost overruns. As of the end of 2004, the new missile has just reached the stage of initial tests and seems to be several years from its first flight, not to mention from operational deployment.

The new missile will be deployed on submarines of a new class, known as Borey. Two ships of this class are currently under construction in Russia ? the first one was launched in 1996 and the second ? in 2004. The plan is to finish the construction in 2005-2006, but given the status of the Bulava missile program, it is probably unrealistic to expect these submarines to become fully operational before the end of the decade.

In the long run, Russia will probably be able to maintain a strategic fleet of six to ten submarines that would carry up to 500 nuclear warheads. This would be comparable to the projected number of warheads in the Strategic Rocket Forces, but as we could see, it is not clear if the Navy could actually implement the development program as it is currently planned.

Strategic Aviation

During the cold war, the role of the strategic aviation in the Soviet strategic forces was largely symbolic. Shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union the Russian president even pledged to discontinue production of heavy bombers ? a move that certainly reflected the attitudes prevailing at that time. The strategic aviation nevertheless survived and, as we will see, is finding a new role, which can potentially make it the most dynamic element of the Russian strategic triad.

After the reorganization and moderate reductions, which were associated with consolidating all strategic bombers on Russian territory, the strategic bomber fleet includes 78 aircraft ? 14 supersonic turbojet Tu-160 and 64 turboprop Tu-95MS. The bombers can carry twelve and six or sixteen air-launched cruise missiles respectively, so the total number of nuclear warheads that can be delivered by the strategic bomber fleet can be as high as about 850. The number of operationally available warheads is certainly smaller, but there is no information as to what this number could be.

The ban on production of new heavy bombers was overturned in 1999 and since then Russia has added two new aircraft into its force. Two more planes are expected to be completed in 2005. In addition to the resumed production, in 2001 Russia has initiated a modernization program that will equip the bombers with new avionics ? one of the two new Tu-160 bombers will be the first one to carry it and the rest of the bomber fleet is expected to go through the modernization in the coming years.

The decision to resume production of heavy bombers and to begin the modernization program reflects the growing understanding in the military and political leadership that the cold-war structure of the strategic forces makes them too inflexible. In this situation, strategic bombers became a ?weapons of choice? whenever the Russian leadership wanted to demonstrate its capability to engage in a conflict (if only to prevent its escalation). To prove this point, Russia held a series of exercises, most notably in 1999, shortly after the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo. Although the greater role of strategic aviation is unlikely to amount to a serious overhaul of the Russian nuclear strategy, it certainly means that strategic bombers will remain a significant part of the strategic forces for years to come.

Another advantage that sets strategic aviation apart from other legs of the strategic triad is inherent dual-use nature of bombers. Unlike ballistic missiles, strategic bombers can be used in conventional role in a wide range of conflicts and their military utility is not limited to nuclear deterrence. In a perhaps inevitable step, the Russian leadership announced that the conventional capability of the bombers will allow using them to counter a terrorist threat.

In order to provide its bombers with this conventional capability, Russia has developed a non-nuclear version of its Kh-55 (AS-15) long-range cruise missile. This version of the missile, known as Kh-555, is expected to enter service in 2005. In addition to this, the Tu-160 modernization program will allow the bombers to use carry conventional gravity bombs.

Overall, we can expect that Russia will try to preserve its strategic aviation in its current form. Some older aircraft will retire, but the overall number of strategic bombers will stay at the level of about 75 aircraft. As it is the case with other components of the strategic forces, a large-scale buildup is extremely unlikely. Instead, the efforts will most likely be directed toward converting more bombers for conventional roles and development of precision munitions that these aircraft would carry.


As we can see, the Russian strategic forces have reached a relatively stable period and their development is largely predictable. Most of the new weapon developments programs have taken shape and neither demonstrates a potential for significant expansion. As a result, in ten years Russia will probably have a strategic force of about 1500 nuclear warheads evenly distributed among the three traditional components of a strategic triad. This, in fact, is very close to the projection made by the Russian president in November 2000, when he proposed that U.S.-Russian disarmament talks should focus on achieving this number.

While 1500 nuclear warheads represent the higher bound of estimates of the future of the Russian strategic forces, this number is very close to the lower bound of these estimates as well. Most of the modernization programs that exist today are driven by internal interests, whether in the military or in the industry. They can generally count on political and public support of the efforts to preserve the strategic forces, so it is unlikely that any of these programs will be discontinued for budgetary or any other reasons.

International pressures are also unlikely to change the situation to any substantial degree. The main U.S.-Russian arms control agreement, the START Treaty, will expire in the end of 2009, and its limits are too high anyway to be of any practical significance. The other agreement now in force, the Moscow treaty signed in 2002, is too vague to impose any limits on strategic forces. In fact, that treaty only demonstrated that neither Russia nor the United States has interest in arms control agreements that would limit their modernization programs.

In the end, the future of the strategic forces will be decided by the changes in the security environment. Even today, nuclear weapons cannot do anything about the most serious security challenges that Russia is facing ? unresolved conflict in Chechnya, terrorist attacks associated with it, and general instability at Russia?s borders. In this situation the strategic nuclear forces, which were designed to be a weapon in a completely different kind of war, will find their mission largely disappear. This process, however, will take considerable time, so Russia will probably get to complete its current round of modernization and keep about 1500 nuclear warheads in its strategic arsenal.