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Russia’s strategic nuclear plans: Mission uncertain

December 21, 2010

The following analysis is reprinted with permission from RIA Novosti, Moscow.

Russia’s strategic nuclear plans:  Mission uncertain
©  RIA Novosti
By Ilya Kramnik
December 21, 2010

Russia, which is in the midst of far-reaching military and defense-sector reforms, will continue to focus on its strategic nuclear forces. They will be overhauled within ten years, with new systems making up 80% of the revamped Strategic Missile Force and Soviet-made systems with extended warranties comprising the remaining 20%.

Yars to replace Topol

The single-warhead Topol-M missiles first started to roll off the production line in 1998. Russia currently has about 70 Topols, most of them silo-based. Although mobile Topols were first deployed as recently as 2007, they will soon be replaced with the RS-24 Yars, a MIRVed version of the Topol-M missile, capable of carrying at least four warheads.

The Yars is currently the world’s only MIRVed mobile missile and will replace the first-generation Topol systems that were made back in the 1980s and the early 1990s, as well as obsolete silo-based UR-100N missiles (NATO reporting name SS-19 Stiletto).

Moreover, Russia also intends to restructure its strategic nuclear forces, cutting the weighting toward the Strategic Missile Force from 70% to 30% or 35%. One reason for this is the planned scrapping of obsolete Soviet-made missiles and the construction of more missile submarines, which is gathering momentum. They will carry mainly MIRVed missiles.

Project 955 submarines armed with Bulava-30 missiles (NATO name SS-NX-32) will form the core of the naval element of Russia’s nuclear systems.

The first such submarine, the Yury Dolgoruky, was to be brought into combat duty in 2011, but the situation is complicated by the fact that the next trial launch of the Bulava missile has been delayed until next spring. The deployment timeframe of the other boats in this project remains unclear despite recent successful launches of the Bulava. There is simply insufficient data on which to base any decision.

An extended series of trials should therefore be held to enable clear conclusions to be drawn before the missile goes into mass production. The submarine group armed with the Bulava-30 missiles is unlikely to take shape before 2014 or 2015, after the missile production system has been honed.

Moreover, post-trials Bulava production should be agreed with producers. The country has not faced such a challenging task since the 1970s and 1980s, when the Soviet Union mass-produced the systems that currently form the core of its armed forces.

The task is further complicated by the fact that technical and engineering education in Russia has deteriorated, and the country is suffering from an acute lack of highly skilled professionals. To make matters worse, wages in the defense sector are relatively small.

A new heavy missile:  Bad choice

Recent weeks saw the announcement that Russia is to create a new heavy missile that will replace the RS-20 Voyevoda (SS-18 Satan), which is nearing the end of its service life. There are about 60 Voyevoda missiles in the Strategic Missile Force, each carrying 10 large-yield warheads.

However, the new START treaty, which has not yet been ratified, involves cutting back the number of strategic nuclear systems to 700 and the number of warheads to 1,550. According to Russia’s development plans for its strategic nuclear forces, over 1,000 warheads are to be based on the Project 955 nuclear submarines and the modernized Project 667BDRM (Delta IV class, Dolphin) boats.

Long-range aircraft will carry approximately 80 warheads (under the new treaty, each aircraft may carry only one nuclear warhead).

This leaves some 400 warheads for the Strategic Missile Force. The Topol-M systems will account for 70 to 80 warheads, and 60 to 70 Yars missiles for 200 to 300 warheads. The remaining warheads (from several dozen to 100-120 warheads) are mounted on Soviet-made missiles that will be decommissioned last.

It is therefore unclear where this new heavy missile will fit in.

Russian designers and military leaders agree that the planned creation of a new heavy missile could be an ace for Russia to use if the United States refuses to ratify the new agreements. The deployment of 30 to 40 new heavy missiles with 300 to 400 large-yield precision warheads would greatly strengthen Russia’s nuclear stance should the United States decide to go ahead with its ballistic missile shield for Europe.


Ilya Kramnik is RIA Novosti’s military commentator. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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