Russian Nuclear Triad Modernization

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This analysis originally appeared in December 2015

Recent days and weeks have seen several news items pertaining to the future state of the Russian nuclear triad. The scope of  modernization plans suggests the role Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are to play as of Russia’s security foreign policy.

The scale of Russian strategic nuclear modernization is impressive. President Putin recently attended the laying down of Aleksandr III, the seventh Borey-class ballistic missile submarine out of eight planned which carry 16 multi-warhead Bulava SLBMs each. Three of these ships are already in service, the whole series is to become operational by 2020. It was also announced that the first PAK-DA heavy bomber flight is to take place in 2020, with the aircraft becoming operational by 2025. In the interim, Russia’s Long-Range Aviation will receive several squadrons of Tu-160M2 bombers, whose production is expected to resume in the upcoming years. The Sarmat heavy ICBM research and development has been recently declared complete, and the missile will begin launch testing in 2016 or 2017. The missile’s unique capabilities include the ability to strike any target on the planet using multiple possible trajectories, for example, it could be used to strike North America not only by flying over the North Pole, but also using an alternative trajectory over the South Pole which would render US ABM systems irrelevant. The construction of Voronezh-DM over-the-horizon ballistic missile attack early warning radars is continuing. Finally, the Russian General Staff announced the development of a system allowing strategic ballistic missiles to be retargeted following launch, which thus far was impossible to do because once the target selection was completed prior to launch there was no way to alter it once the missile was in flight.

This brief outline of current developments shows that Russia is pursuing a sophisticated strategy of deterrence. The comparatively small and uniform French, Russian, and Chinese nuclear arsenals are capable of deterring only one threat, namely a nuclear attack on their national territory. The variety of capabilities inherent in Russia’s triad means that its national leadership has a range of responses at its disposal and can use its capabilities to deter not only nuclear attacks against its territory but also conventional attacks against its military targets, including outside of Russia’s borders.

Syria is an example of what these capabilities mean for Russia. It is no accident that Putin’s request to raise the strategic nuclear force readiness level to 95% came when he instructed the General Staff to destroy any potential threat to Russian aircraft or ground facilities in Syria. The Russian military presence in Syria is not large enough to guarantee survival against a concerted NATO attack. Fifty aircraft located at a single airbase, even one protected by the S-400, are still vulnerable due to their exposed location and lack of strategic depth. Russian conventional forces could not easily come to Hmeimim’s aid in the event of it being attacked by NATO forces. What makes Hmeimim secure from attack is the credible and flexible deterrence posture.

What makes that deterrence both credible and flexible is the variety and modernity of Russia’s delivery vehicle force which is not limited to having to launch a multi-warhead ICBM or SLBM, and which can penetrate all current or planned defenses. The credibility of Russia’s nuclear deterrent is strengthened by the existence of a powerful conventional deterrent in the form of Kalibr and Kh-101 cruise missiles. The use of these missiles against ISIS targets was likely motivated to dissuade any countries hostile to Russia’s presence in Syria because it demonstrated Russia could use these weapons to retaliate against any attack on Hmeimim. The target state would then have to choose between backing down or escalating, thus risking a nuclear exchange with Russia. If Russia simply had an ICBM and SLBM force, Hmeimim would be a much more tempting target because an ICBM launch would be disproportionate response to the attack. Russia’s strategic force modernization plans indicate that its leadership anticipates Syria-like scenarios in the years to come.

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  • John Whitehot

    I believe the attacks made by strategic bombers with latest-gen weapons bring several messages to different actors. One of them could be Israel, which is near the area and has all the capabilities and the will to monitor the strikes. This is a period of intense sabre-rattling behind the scenes of the international geopolitics, and i’m pretty convinced that Israel at some point had options on the table to directly attack russian forces in Syria. The fact that russian aircraft deployed from Iran as well gives some confirmation to this theory: it’s like saying that even in the event of a overwhelming attack on russian forces in the area, Russia has the means to retaliate and cause irreparable damage. Don’t forget the event that occured some months ago, where the Israeli air defence (using Patriots and F-16) was unable to intercept a misteryous drone that “drifted” inside Israeli airspace

  • Jesus

    Ability to strike with conventional weapons 2-6000 miles is a necessity to deter an enemy that is distant from the theater of operation. A conventional attack necessitates another conventional response……not a nuclear one. Introduction of the Sarmat ICBM would allow to deploy a minimum of 10 project 4202 hypersonic glide vehicles conventionally armed, that are highly accurate. Even Topol and Yars could accommodate 1-2 hypersonic glide vehicles.
    Tu-160 equipped with air launched cruise missiles would be another good platform, along with a naval task force involving a modernized Kirov battle cruiser and some new Lidder destroyers capable of launching hundreds of cruise missiles from deployed positions to optimize the range of the weapons they carry.

    • Robson Robson

      Equipping an ICMCB with conventinal warheads seem to be a bad idea as the launch of said missiles can be easily monitored and is typically understood as a nuclear strike, leading to a nuclear response. As there are just minutes until the warheads will hit their targets there is not a lot of time left to react. Good luck building your nuclear fallout shelter and equiping it with enough food/ water / energy sources/ air filters…

      • Jesus

        Maybe you need to study more on the technology of project 4202. A Sarmat missile is launched and 10 minutes later it discards the hypersonic glide vehicles that can travel thousands of miles to their designated targets. Launch 5 Sarmat missiles discard the 50 hypersonic glide vehicles thousands of miles away from the enemy target, and allow the hypersonic glide vehicles zero in on the targets. Anyone looking at the radar screen and seeing the above would definitely know this is not a first strike attack, might as well try to activate the THADD and hope you intercept some of these glide vehicles.

        • Robson Robson

          Even if that were true, kinda expensive way to send some conventinal warheads half around the globe (with the danger of being misunderstood as a nuclear attack). Why not send long range bombers loaded with cruise missiles? The Sarmat or Satan kind of ICMCB does not come for free (actually, one can still earn money with the Satans sending satellites to space). Add the cost for the glide vehicles and you might start lo love the low cost of cruise missile loaded subs…

          • Jesus

            It is a new generation of weapons, yes they will be expensive, Sarmat will be the new heavy ICBM platform for the Russians, they can have a few equipped to deliver conventional strikes. The bombers with cruise missiles are fine, this is a superior weapon that cannot be intercepted and has a very low CEP.

          • Robson Robson

            As Russia is not a nation trying to wage war everywhere in the world and doesn’ t need to destroy stationary objects in some far away godforsaken place or in the US, the need for conventional waepons that you decribe are maybe not that important.

            It seems to be way more important to keep a credible second strike option, as that is the only thing that prevents the US from doing whatever they like… To my understanding the US were the only country using nuclear weapons AND planning to use tactical/strategical nuclear waepons later again (McArthur during the Korea war against China, the US general staff against the Soviet Union in the 60s, and so on). Nowadays Russia seems to have a credible option against a carrier battle group already…

          • Jesus

            I am talking about a conventional strike capability, not a nuclear one. Going over the nuclear threshold is not easy, past strategic studies indicated a strong desire by US to have a strong primacy in conventional and nuclear capabilities, the nuclear option being used to coerce the outcome of conventional events.

            The hypersonic missiles and glide vehicles are the next generation weapons, it is not only Russia that is trying to perfect the technology, China and US are participating in the race as well.

            Please tell me your understanding of a credible option the Russians have against a carrier battle group deployed on the east coast of US around Virginia?

            US actions are predicated on the assumption that no one has the direct capability to attack US with conventional weapons, an assumption that predates WW1, an assumption that worked well for the US, participating in both world wars without subjecting its territory to any destruction.

          • Robson Robson

            Where is the threat for Russia around Virginia??? There is no need to be able to sink a battle group there. Anyway,this wounld start WW3 rightaway! Trigger happy?

            Also a conventional attack on the US would kinda lead to WW3, with the normal trigger happy americans. There is no thinking going on there, just testosterone. Never would it have been possible that something like the downing of the Su24 by turkey would have been replied by a some economic warfare…

            Else Russia still seems to have some subs, and the US navy kinda has forgotten about ASW!

            BTW, the Soviet Union has already developped ballistic missiles with glide vehicles against carrier battle groups in the 60s or 70s, the R 27 K, which finally never entered service. It seemed to be not important enough (as compared to strategic ICMCB’s… Some SALT agreement buisness).

          • Jesus

            The main point of the hypothesis is to make continental US vulnerable to conventional attacks if they project their aggression in Europe and start a war on continental Europe against Russia. Being protected by the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as was the case for the last 100 years should be a moot point. The R27 K was a SLBM equipped with MIRV warheads. SLBMS do not have the payload to carry a number of hypersonic glide vehicles. Sarmat’s payload is 10 tons, and I do not believe that if US was attacked conventionally they would respond with nuclear weapons.

          • Robson Robson

            To my understanding the R27 K variant was equipped with a MARV with terminal guidance to target surface ships. So yes, not like 10 MARVs as a Satan might carry…
            BTW, maybe I haven’ t really understood the difference between a hypersonic glide vehicle and a MARV, but both seem to be kinda similar to me.

            Else, wouldn’ t you agree that even a conventional attack on the US would lead to war, which might end with the use of nuclear weapons?

          • Jesus

            MIRV warhead is bussed on a predetermined trajectory taking it close to the designated target and released In its proximity, the MIRV warhead uses its independent guidence system for last minute corrections.
            A hypersonic glide vehicle is launched by a heavy ICBM and then released at a predetermined location, the glide vehicle uses its aerodynamic shape and aids to travel thousands of miles to its intended target. I am sure the glide vehicle can be redirected at another target in mid flight. A Sarmat ICBM can be launched and directed over the Pacific east of Japan, release its glide vehicles, the glide vehicles can travel across Pacific and continental US and find targets off the coast of Virginia.

          • Robson Robson

            So basically it is a MARV on steroids (with a MARV (Maneuverable reentry vehicle) not beeing a MIRV, btw)…

          • Jesus

            The information regarding MARVS and their employment on R27 I said limited, yes, it is similar technology on steroids.

          • Jesus

            Why should a conventional attack on US trigger a nuclear war? Is US unable of a conventional response? US fought wars that benefitted her on European soil, whereby Europe was totally devastated, while US was immune from any direct attack. Sure, German submarines sunk US ships close to the US coast, and maybe some limited form of sabotage took place, however, US did not feel the ravages of war at home. With the advent of new technologies conventional weapons can be delivered from thousands of miles away from US coastlines at specific targets.

          • Jesus

            Let’s develop a hypothetical scenario in Europe, all this push to increase NATO presence close to the Russian borders advocated by US, if things do not go according to NATO’s delusions based on fake intelligence and drummed up propaganda, if the Russians prevail conventionally, the battle vill be fought in Europe, subsequently the European continent will be damaged. US can claim that they are not going to have a strong presence in Europe, knowing very well the Russians are not going to attack them with nuclear weapons jeopardizing the safety of the world. If Russia possessed these hypersonic weapons, they could be directed at the neocon dens, removing the source of the US aggression world wide.

          • Robson Robson

            Hm, close to the border of russia is a zone that is defended by Iskander M.

          • Jesus

            Consider the Russian hypersonic glider as weapons that could neutralize the entire US carrier force in a matter of an hour. Chinese DF 21 is similar, the launch platform is smaller with a much lesser payload.