The Bulletin Online

By Pavel Podvig | 16 January 2009

We don't know at this point what the next U.S.-Russian arms control agreement will look like, but everyone in the international community expects it to be a step toward significantly reducing the world's two largest nuclear arsenals. The levels set in the Moscow Treaty, which Washington and Moscow signed in May 2002, commit them to reducing the number of operationally deployed nuclear warheads on each side to no more than 1,700-2,200 warheads by 2012. One would expect that a post-Moscow Treaty agreement will bring much lower numbers.

Optimists suggest that each country could go to as low as 500 operationally deployed warheads. I think this would be difficult--in part because it would require further bending of the already lax counting rules for "operationally deployed warheads." A number such as 1,500 warheads would be easier to reach. The main problem with a 1,500-warhead level is that it's too close to the Moscow Treaty limit for the reduction to count as a dramatic disarmament step. Most likely then we'll end up with something in between, with 1,000-1,200 warheads representing a good bet.

While getting there will require skillful, difficult negotiations between the U.S. and Russian delegations, the hardest conversations will take place at home with the countries' respective military-industrial complexes. This is particularly so for Russia, where the political leadership already has given its defense industry and military a free hand in shaping Moscow's national security policy. Specifically, recent promises and commitments that Moscow has made regarding the future buildup of its strategic forces put Russia on a trajectory that's incompatible with substantial nuclear reductions. More directly, if all of the currently scheduled programs materialize, Russia will find itself in a situation where its strategic arsenal will start growing.

In fact, it already is growing--although that growth is masked by the dramatic reduction of old missiles with multiple warheads. But these missiles will be around for some time; it appears that the current plan is to keep old Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) around until about 2021, which is when the last SS-18 missile will turn 30 years old. I hope that if the United States and Russia agree on dramatic reductions in the near future, these missiles could be eliminated sooner--after all, they're old. But getting rid of the new Russian missiles, submarines, and bombers that are being built today will be much more difficult, presenting a potentially serious obstacle to cutting the number of nuclear warheads in Russia's arsenal much below 1,500.

In particular, two major new strategic systems are currently under development: (1) the Topol-M, or SS-27, ICBM; and (2) the Project 955 Borey submarine with Bulava missiles. In addition, Russia has resumed production of Tu-160 strategic bombers. None of these three programs have been large in terms of deployment, but even small numbers add up over time.

With Topol-M, the Strategic Rocket Forces have added about six new missiles a year for about a decade. In total, there are 65 missiles deployed today, each carrying a single warhead. The current plan is to continue deployment at about the same rate throughout the next few years, bringing the number of deployed missiles to 110-120 by 2015. The program, however, will undergo a major change in December when new Topol-M missiles will be equipped with multiple warheads. (This missile configuration is known as RS-24.) Assuming that the missiles will carry three warheads, Topol-Ms would then account for about 210 warheads, and the entire ICBM force would have about 800 warheads by 2015. As older missiles retire and the deployment of new Topol-Ms continue, the missile force would shrink to about 400 warheads, all deployed on new Topol-M missiles--although they won't be so new by that time.

Development of the sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), Bulava, has run into some serious problems, but Russia seems determined to continue the program, with the first Borey submarine scheduled to be deployed in either 2010 or 2011. Two more submarines are under construction, and the plan is to build eight of these ships in all. In the meantime, the Russian Navy will rely on six older Delta IV submarines. Assuming that the navy would maintain a fleet of eight submarines--both old and new--the total number of warheads on its SLBMs will stay at 600-700 over the next decade.

Finally, the number of Tu-160 bombers is expected to double in the next decade, with 30 aircraft expected to be in service by 20102025-2030. It's reasonable to assume that older bombers will retire to keep the total number of bomber-carried nuclear weapons at the level of 400-500, which is slightly less than Russia has today.

Taken together, all of this means that Russia is planning to have about 1,400-1,600 nuclear warheads in its strategic force for some time. And this could be a conservative estimate. For example, there's a possibility that the multiple-warhead version of the Topol-M missile will carry more than three warheads. There's also persistent talk about developing a new multiple-warhead missile that would be deployed alongside Topol-Ms. If this were to occur, the number of warheads in the Russian arsenal would be pushed even higher. More importantly, most of these warheads would be deployed on relatively new systems that could stay in service for many years. And if history is any guide, liquidating them would be a contentious domestic issue.

Nothing, of course, is set in stone. Plans can be changed. After all, the point of having arms reductions is to cut back on weapon development programs. But it would be much harder to do this once these programs gain a momentum--making a new U.S.-Russian disarmament agreement much more urgent.