Russia Deployed Over 150 New Warheads in Past Year

U.S. cut warheads by 57 in same period

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin / AP
April 6, 2016

Russia deployed 153 strategic nuclear warheads over the past year under the New START arms treaty while the U.S. military pared its nuclear forces by 57 warheads, according to State Department figures released last week.

The increase in warheads by Moscow appears to be part of Moscow’s large-scale strategic nuclear forces buildup.

Defense officials disclosed last week that Russia is doubling the number of strategic nuclear warheads and remains over the 1,550 warhead limit set by the 2010 New START arms treaty.

The Russian increases are due to the deployment of new, multiple-warhead SS-27 Mod 2 road-mobile missiles and SS-N-32 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, officials said.

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced last month that its nuclear forces will add 20 new SS-27 Mod 2 missiles, known as Yars, this year. New SS-N-32s, called Bulava by Russia, also are being fielded. Both missiles can be equipped with up to 10 warheads each. The SS-N-32s are deployed on new Borei-class missile submarines.

The treaty requires the United States and Russia to reduce their arsenal of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by February 2018.

The warhead numbers include weapons used on land-based intercontinental missiles, submarine-launches missiles and on bombers.

Additionally, the latest data released by the State Department on Friday shows the Russians added six new missiles over the past year, while reducing its launchers by 34 nuclear missile launchers or bombers.

For the United States, 20 missile launchers or bombers were eliminated over the past year under the treaty, along with eliminating 44 systems, either intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sub-launched missiles, or nuclear-capable bombers.

The large Russian warhead buildup, combined with official statements from Moscow questioning the utility of continued adherence to the treaty, are raising concerns about a break-out from the treaty limits.

Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon nuclear forces policymaker, said the increase by Russia in deployed warheads is greater than analysts expected and signals Moscow is set to violate New START in the coming months.

"Russia is now at 198 more deployed warheads than at entry into force [of the New START treaty]," Schneider said.

The treaty went into effect in February 2011. Since then, Russia gradually has built up its warhead totals. The warhead numbers increased sharply over the past year, reflecting multiple-warhead missile deployments.

"I believe the odds are that Russia will terminate the treaty in 2017," Schneider said. "That would pocket all the U.S. reductions, give them more weapons, and it might be seen by [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin as revenge for the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty [withdrawal]."

The United States withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002 and began building missile defenses, a move that Russia has interpreted as a threat.

Additionally, Russia will be emboldened to pull out of the New START treaty by the failure of the United States to address Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Schneider said. The treaty bans the construction of intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia breached the accord with a new SS-N-8 cruise missile, U.S. officials have said.

"Whether or not the Russians pull the plug on New START, the number of Russian warheads will be much larger than 1,550," Schneider said, noting state-run Russian press reports put Moscow’s long-term warhead level at 2,100, while a U.S. think tank estimates the Russians will deploy around 2,500 warheads by 2025.

Schneider, now with the National Institute for Public Policy, also said the estimates of Russian warheads do not include announced plans by Moscow to build at least 50 new Tu-160 nuclear bombers. "That will push the number to over 3,000 when this program is completed," he said.

At the same time the United States has continued to cut its force levels, he noted.

Asked about the Russian warhead increase, Blake Narendra, a spokesman for the State Department’s bureau of arms control, verification, and compliance, said both the United States and Russia continue to fully implement the New START treaty "in a business-like manner."

Narendra said under the treaty there are no interim limits on warheads so Russia has months to comply with the 1,550 warhead limit.

Russian modernization of its nuclear forces will produce "fluctuations" in the number of deployed warheads as well as delivery systems, he said of the warhead increases.

As for multiple warheads being added to new Russian missiles, Narendra said, "the United States itself maintains an upload capability on its Minuteman III ICBMs."

The State Department expects Russia to meet the New START central limits by 2018, he said.

In addition to new nuclear forces, Russia has also adopted a new doctrine that emphasizes the use of nuclear forces in a conflict.

The combination of new forces and the threatening nuclear doctrine has prompted U.S. military leaders to warn about the growing threat posed by Russia.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of the U.S. European Command and of NATO, said in February that Russia has "chosen to be an adversary and poses a long-term existential threat" to the United States and its allies.

"To counter Russia, Eucom, working with allies and partners, is deterring Russia now and preparing to fight and win if necessary," Breedlove told Congress.

A report by the National Institute for Public Policy concludes that Russia is building up its nuclear forces to instill fear of Moscow.

"Russian leaders appear to view nuclear weapons as the ultimate way to make the world ‘fear,’ or at least respect Russia, and provide a political lever to intimidate, coerce, and deter Western states from attempting to interfere militarily against Russian expansionism," states the report, co-written by Schneider and Mark Payne, another former Pentagon nuclear forces expert.

In addition to the new SS-27s and SS-N-32s, Moscow is building a new heavy ICBM called Sarmat that will have up to 15 warheads; another long-range missile called the RS-26 with MIRVs, and a railroad-launcher missile called Barguzin.

Moscow has also showcased a developmental drone submarine called Kanyon with a megaton-sized nuclear warhead capable of blowing up harbors and ports.

"Russia’s apparently low nuclear threshold raises the stakes in any conflict, and compels adversaries to confront the possibility they could become involved, so too would Russian nuclear weapons," the report said.

"This has been prominently displayed throughout hostilities in Ukraine, as Russian nuclear exercises, official statements and bomber patrols are intended to intimidate western states."

The report concludes: "Whether it be covering hybrid [warfare] operations, intimidating European states or potentially employing nuclear strikes to defeat a conventionally superior adversary, nuclear weapons and threat of their use are likely to remain, if not grow, in importance for Russia."

Published under: Nuclear Weapons , Russia