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Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal: the single biggest threat to the US

Today we will analyze Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal, to the extent that information on it is available. Russia is the largest nuclear power in the world, with 2,800 strategic nuclear warheads (1,492 of them deployed) and untold thousands of tactical nuclear warheads, deployed and nondeployed. We will look at both the strategic and the tactical arsenal, assesing their size, diversity, survivability, and mobility, and I will show you that it is the single biggest security threat to the US and that it, by itself, justifies maintaining a large nuclear triad of ICBMs, SSBNs, and strategic bombers.

Russia’s strategic arsenal

Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal consists of 2,800 warheads (1,492 of them deployed, as of the latest New START data exchange) and their delivery systems: ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) deployed on ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), and strategic bombers.

Russia currently possesses several types of ICBMs. It has 58 R-36M Voyevoda (SS-18 Satan) heavy ICBMs (each of which can carry 10 warheads and up to 30 countermeasures to evade missile defense systems), 136 UR-100N (SS-19 Stilletto) ICBMs (each of which can carry 6 warheads), 144 single-warhead RT-2PM  Topol (SS-25 Sickle) ICBMs, 72 single-warhead RT-2UTTH (SS-27 Sickle-B) ICBMs, and 18 RS-24 Yars (SS-29) missiles (with 4 warheads each).

Collectively, these ICBMs combined could carry 1,684 warheads (plus countermeasures), although they are not currently loaded with that many due to the New START treaty (which sets a ceiling of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads per side). But this is still far more than the meager 1,350 warheads that America’s 450 Minuteman-III ICBMs could carry (each of them can carry only 3 warheads).

Russia is now developing a new multiple-warhead ICBM, to be introduced in 2015, and a new heavy ICBM (“the son of Satan”), to be deployed in 2018. By 2020, 80% of Russia’s ICBM fleet is to be new, i.e. consisting of missiles other than the Soviet-era SS-18, SS-19, and SS-25.

More on that here in this must-read article.

Russia’s Navy has 14 SSBNs: 12 of the Delta III and Delta IV classes, one Borei class sub, and one Typhoon class sub (which is currently used as a test platform but can be armed with active duty SLBMs anytime).

The 12 Delta class SSBNs can carry 16 SLBMs each, as can the sole Borei class sub. The sole Typhoon class sub, the Dmitri Donskoy, can carry 20 missiles.

What missiles do Russian submarines currently carry? New, improved variants of the R-29 SLBM such as the R-29RMU Sinyeva, with a range of over 11,000 kms, which enables Russian SSBNs to hit any targets in the US while being in port or in home waters. Russian SSBNs have had that capability since the early 1990s, although the Sinyeva missile itself was introduced in 2007. The RSM-56 Bulava (SS-NX-30) SLBM has a range of up to 16,000 kms.

Russian SLBMs have various warhead carriage capacities. The R-29RM Shtil, introduced in 1986, can carry four warheads over a distance of 8,300 kms. The R-29RMU Sinyeva (SS-N-23 skiff) can carry 4 warheads over 11,547 kms. The R-29RMU2.1 Liner has the same range and can carry 12 warheads. The Bulava will have a range of 16,000 kilometers and be able to carry 10 warheads.

The 13 SSBNs other than the Typhoon class boat can collectively carry 204 SLBMs (13*16); the Typhoon clas can carry another 20. That is a collective carriage capacity of 2040-2240 warheads.

The USN’s current SSBN fleet, consisting of 14 Ohio class boats, can carry 24 missiles per boat, with 8 warheads per missile. 14*24=336 missiles. 336*2688 warheads, far more than what Russia’s submarine fleet can carry.

But the USN plans to replace its aging fleet of Ohio class SSBNs with only 12 boats, each of which will be able to carry only 16 SLBMs. That will reduce their missile launch capacity to only 192 (12*16) SLBMs and only 1536 (192*8) warheads, compared to 2240 for Russia.

If proposals by pacifist groups that the future SSBN fleet be cut to just 8 boats are implemented, this will cut the Navy’s SLBM launch capacity to only 128 (8*16) SLBMs and only 1024 (128*8) warheads, compared to 2240 for Russia.

In the future, Russia plans to replace 7 of its Delta class SSBNs with Borei class boats. 5 of these new Borei class boats (from Knyaz Vladimir onwards) will be able to carry 20 SLBMs each. Thus, the future Russian SSBN fleet will consist of 8 Borei class boats (Yuri Dolgoruki and the other seven), 4-5 Delta class SSBNs, and the sole Typhoon class boat. The four Deltas and the first three Boreis will be able to carry  16 SLBMs each, i.e. a total of 7*16=112 SLBMs, while the other five Boreis will carry 20 SLBMs each, a total of 100 missiles, for a total fleet missile carriage capacity of 212 SLBMs (R-29M/RM or SS-NX-30 Bulava missiles).

Each of them can carry 10 warheads, so that will give them the capability to deliver 2120 warheads.

Throw in another 20 SLBMs and 200 warheads, and you get a delivery capacity of 2320 warheads. In either case, that is far more than what the USN will have, under any scenario, with the new SSBN fleet. Even if all 12 boats are built.

The Russian Air Force, for its part, has 64 Tu-95, at least 16 (and probably more) Tu-160, and over 183 Tu-22M supersonic[1] strategic bombers; the Russian Naval Aviation has another 58 Tu-22Ms. (The first two have an unrefuelled intercontinental combat radius; the Tu-22M is also intercontinental if refueled mid-air.) Another 3 are waiting for completion at their Kazan plant, another 6 are owned by the Zhukovsky experimental facility (but could be used for bomber duty), and another 7 are in Ukraine and could be transferred to Russia in exchange for cheaper Russian natural gas.[2] Each of these bombers can carry at least several nuclear-tipped cruise missiles; the Tu-95 and the Tu-22M can also carry nuclear freefall bombs, and the Tu-160 could be modified to do so. At least 20 Russian strategic bombers are on patrol anytime.

The standard cruise missile of the Russian bomber fleet is the Raduga Kh-55 (AS-15 Kent) nuclear-tipped cruise missile whose standard variant has a range of 2,500 kms and its Kh-55SM variant has a range of 3,000 kms. Every Kh-55 missile can carry a 200 kT warhead. (China and India also possess these missiles.) Each Tu-95 and Tu-22M can carry six AS-15 missiles and one nuclear bomb. A Tu-160 bomber can carry twice as many AS-15 cruise missiles: 12.

As with the other two legs of its nuclear triad, Russia is now modernizing its bomber fleet by producing new Tu-160 bombers from stockpiled components and developing a new strategic bomber, the PAK DA (Prospective Aviation System of Long-Range Aviation).

In total, Russia has an arsenal of 2,800 strategic nuclear warheads, all of which are deliverable, but only 1,492 of which are deployed due to New START limits (with 58 additional ones to be deployed soon to max out the New START limit) while the other 1,250 are in reserve. Russia will thus soon be at 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and enjoy strategic nuclear parity with the US (pre-New-START, the US had a significant advantage in the number of deployed strategic warheads).

Moreover, New START stipulates only a limit on the total number of deployed warheads and their delivery systems (with bombers, not cruise missiles, counted as delivery systems) and does not limit how many warheads or cruise missiles a bomber can carry or how many warheads an ICBM can carry. New START counts each Russian bomber as carrying one warhead, even if it carries 6 or more.[3]

All three legs of the Russian nuclear triad are now undergoing a significant modernization, and all of them will see their delivery capacity increased in the years ahead.

Delivery system name Quantity Warhead carriage capacity per system Total warhead carriage capacity
SS-18 ICBM 58 10 580
SS-19 ICBM 136 6 816
SS-25 ICBM 144 1 144
SS-27 ICBM 74 1 72
SS-29/RS-24 ICBM 18 4 72
Tu-95 bomber/w Kh-55 ALCMs* 63 6 378
Tu-160 bomber/w Kh-55 ALCMs* At least 16 12 192
Tu-22M bomber w/Kh-55 ALCMs* 6
Delta/Borei class SSBN w/R-29RMU SLBMs 13 16*x 16*x*13
Typhoon class SSBN 1 200 200
Su-34 strike jet  24 1  24
Su-24/25 strike jet Over 415 1  Over 415
Iskander SRBM
SSN/SSGN w/SLCMs 21 ? ?

*Strategic bombers, not their cruise missiles, are counted by the New START as delivery systems, even though all bombers can deliver more than one CM. For purposes of this table, bombers are counted as delivery systems, but the warhead carriage capacity given is the one for all CMs combined carried by all bombers of a given type in the fleet combined. The Tu-22M is not even counted by New START as a delivery system at all, despite being a strategic bomber.

Tactical nuclear arsenal

If the US enjoys a strategic nuclear parity with Russia, it is wholly and hugely outclassed by Moscow in terms of tactical nuclear warheads of these. Russia has untold thousands of them, with estimates ranging from 4,000 to 14,000. The Obama Administration itself admits Russia has 10 times more of these than the US. Yet, no treaty limits these warheads or even obligates Russia to say how many of them it has.

Russia’s arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons is not only very large, but also very diverse, and includes the following: ballistic missile and cruise missile warheads, torpedo warheads, depth charges, and artillery shells. They can be delivered by a very wide range of delivery systems, including:

  • Su-27, Su-30, Su-35, Su-24, and Su-25 aircraft;
  • Su-34 medium range strike aircraft;
  • short-range ballistic missiles such as the Iskander (SS-26 Stone);
  • ship-, submarine-, and aircraft-launched cruise missiles such as the BrahMos;
  • torpedoes;
  • destroyers and frigates;
  • artillery shells.

Again, it is not known how many tactical nuclear warheads or their delivery systems Russia has, but the warheads are estimated to number in the high thousands. A Russian general has stated that by the end of this decade there will be an Iskander SRBM brigade in every district of Russia except the Kaliningrad district. The Russians have also threatened to deploy Iskander SRBMs in Kaliningrad, too.

It is not known if the PAKFA stealth fighter is or will be capable of carrying nuclear bombs.

Conclusions

At present, Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal on Earth, although its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal is somewhat smaller than America’s – 1,492 warheads versus America’s over 1,700. This will cease to be true by 2018, however, as the US is obligated to cut its deployed arsenal to 1,550 warheads while Russia is allowed to grow its deployed strategic arsenal to that level, up 58 from today’s level of 1,492.

Russia’s total strategic nuclear arsenal consists of 2,800 warheads.

Meanwhile, Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal is vastly bigger than America’s (10 times bigger according to the Obama Administration) and deliverable by a much wider range of missiles than America’s (which is deliverable only by aircraft).

Any notion that the US could unilaterally reduce its nuclear arsenal any further below New START limits and still be able to deter Russia (let alone Russia, China, and North Korea combined), let alone make deep unilateral cuts to the mere hundreds of warheads and still be able to deter Russia, is ridiculous, nonsensical, childish, and patently false. In other words, it’s a blatant lie. America’s present nuclear arsenal is the bare minimum required to deter Russia.

Footnotes:

[1] The maximum speed of Tu-22M bombers is Mach 1.88.

[2] In 1992, Russia obtained 9 Tu-160 bombers from Ukraine this way.

[3] Mark Schneider, Russian Nuclear Modernization, National Institute for Public Policy, June 2012.

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