Russia's Nuclear Forces and Doctrine

Jul 19, 2011

(photo by Jonah Friedman, Moscow 2009)

By Jonah Friedman

The Institut Français des Relations Internationales (Ifri) recently put out a report by Pavel Podvig on Russia’s nuclear forces, and possible courses for its size and shape in the future. He gave a good outline of the current status of Russia’s forces, and potential challenges they face in efforts to modernize them. He also noted that nuclear weapons continue to play an important role in Russia’s security calculations, and that any further reductions in its arsenal will depend in large part on whether an agreement can be struck with the United States on issues such as missile defense.

Podvig begins by dealing with each leg of Russia’s strategic triad in turn and efforts aimed at their modernization. He notes that its land-based ICBMs have traditionally been the largest and most central component, with two-thirds of the total warhead stockpile. Not only has the size of this leg declined in absolute numbers, but so has its relative size (in comparison with the other parts of the triad) – now constituting about half of Russia’s warheads. The Topol-M single-warhead ICBM, developed during the Cold War and deployed in the 1990s, was never produced in sufficiently high quantities. In order to maintain the high number of land-based warheads, a MIRVed version of the Topol-M was tested and deployed in the 2000s.

Russia’s SLBM force has been the focus of a great deal of modernizing effort, centered on the development both a new class of SSBN, as well as a new ballistic missile. The Sineva missile currently deployed has the potential to stay in service until 2020, but Russia is also in the process of developing a new SLBM, the Bulava, which recently completed its fifteenth test launch and will now enter into mass production. The missile is likely to enter service in 2012.

Podvig points out that, unlike the other two legs of the triad, Russia’s bomber force will not undergo significant modernization. Only an upgrade of Tu-160 and Tu-95MS is currently planned. He also notes that, since “the New START treaty counts each bomber as carrying a single operationally deployed warhead…future nuclear reductions are unlikely to affect the composition of the bomber force.”

Many have noted that Russia is already below the treaty’s ceiling and wondered whether it was therefore in the U.S. interest to negotiate in the first place. Defenders of the treaty might argue that the treaty prevents Russia from increasing its forces beyond the treaty limits later on. While this may be true, Podvig points out that given Russia’s production constraints, even if it made a concerted effort to do so, it would be unable to even reach the treaty limits in warheads until 2018 or in launchers until 2028.

On the issue of tactical nuclear weapons, Podvig points out that Russia prefers to view them within the context of a broader strategic agenda which includes things like missile defense and conventional forces. He also argues that NATO members’ reluctance to see U.S. tactical nuclear weapons removed from Europe is at least as much an obstacle to overall reductions in these weapons as is Russian intransigence. While Podvig does not think the Russian military sees tactical nuclear weapons as being useful for warfighting, he does think they serve a purpose in terms of creating political leverage. This lack of military utility is further evidenced, he claims, by the fact that they are not a priority of the Russian military’s modernization efforts.

Podvig’s report is a good overview of Russia’s strategic forces, and there is not much with which to disagree. There are a few parts of it, however, on which to comment. In his introduction he states that Russia’s military doctrine puts the threat posed by NATO front and center. This is not a matter of dispute – Russia’s military planners certainly are focused on NATO, perhaps more than any other threat. It could be added that this focus on both NATO and nuclear weapons is the wrong choice. Not only is the possibility of war with NATO virtually nonexistent, but Russia has greater worries to concern itself with. Its biggest threats and most likely sources of danger in the future are largely internal.

Certainly, Russia still needs to maintain a nuclear deterrent for its external threats, and these weapons will not be much use in dealing with problems such as the situation in the North Caucasus. However, President Medvedev has called this the greatest threat to Russia’s security, and one could argue that it is indeed one of the gravest dangers the country faces – along with other internal concerns such as ethnic tensions, endemic corruption, and a deteriorating demographic situation. The point is that in determining where to spend billions of dollars of government money, it would behoove Russia’s leaders to start thinking about what really threatens the country, and how resources can best be allocated.

The fact that Russia does not seem to be spending much effort or resources on modernizing its tactical nuclear weapons is probably a good thing. However, one can see them as not being de-emphasized in Russia’s doctrine as much as Podvig does. His assessment is that Russia does not view its nuclear weapons as a means by which it can offset its conventional disadvantage. He states that:

“Military exercises do indicate that Russia believes that nuclear weapons could play a role in terminating or de-escalating a conventional conflict in which Russian forces are overwhelmed by a superior adversary. However, the use of nuclear weapons in that case is clearly considered to be a means of sending a strategic signal rather than compensating for the inferiority of conventional forces.”

This distinction is a subtle one. One could ask what exactly would Russia be signaling by using a nuclear weapon? It would be signaling its intention to further use nuclear weapons if an adversary continued to overwhelm it conventionally. This would seem to be a case of Russia looking to offset its conventional inferiority with nuclear weapons. If one looks at the text of Russia’s 2010 military doctrine itself, it states that:

“The Russian Federation reserves the right to utilize nuclear weapons in response to the utilization of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, and also in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat.”

This statement can be read to mean that Russia does not intend to use nuclear weapons except in the most dire of circumstances, and not simply as a counterweight to an enemy’s conventional superiority. However, what constitutes a lethal conventional threat to the state is more open to interpretation than a policy which states that nuclear weapons will only be used in response to a nuclear or other WMD attack, for instance.

Podvig also spends a great deal of time discussing the issue of missile defense and the complications it creates for U.S. – Russian relations. He makes the argument that Russian perceptions of U.S. missile defense plans are influenced by the original Strategic Defense Initiative of the Cold War, which was explicitly directed at Russia. Despite the current system’s more modest size and purported objectives, not to mention the repeated statements of reassurance by U.S. officials, Russia continues to view missile defense plans by the United States with “considerable skepticism.”

Russia, as Podvig notes, remains concerned that while missile defense systems may be limited today, the upward trajectory of its technological development and operational capacity could eventually become a significant problem. At that time, whether or not the system truly puts Russia in a position of vulnerability would be a matter of U.S. and NATO choice. This fear is compounded by the fact that the United States withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002, which Russia considers to be “a sign of U.S. determination to gain a unilateral strategic advantage by escaping the limits on missile defense deployment."  Russia is also not convinced that the threat to the United States by third parties such as Iran warrants the deployment of such a system. However, for all this, Podvig believes that Russia would be willing to cooperate with the U.S. on missile defense.

Podvig suggests that some avenues for cooperation have yet to be fully explored, and that this is due to an inability to find “a proper institutional framework for missile defense cooperation.” He suggests using the NATO-Russia institutions in particular. In addition, he sees recent changes in both U.S. willingness to consult Russia, as well as the possibility that the U.S. might consider using Russian early warning radars as part of the system’s architecture as positive signs.

The prospects for an eventual deal on missile defense cooperation appear exceedingly slim. However, as Podvig notes, the process of working on this issue can be valuable in itself. As he states:

“Even if Russia and the United States and NATO failed to build a joint missile defense, their cooperation in this area would still help advance the arms control dialogue and improve relations between the United States and its NATO allies and Russia. The true value of cooperative programs is in their ability to create institutions that help build confidence, advance mutual understanding, and strengthen trust between the participants.”

The U.S.-Russia relationship, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons, could certainly benefit from this outcome.