Nuclear Notebook publishes status on Russian nuclear forces, 2018

Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris have published an examination of Russia’s nuclear forces in their Nuclear Notebook column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

This is a very comprehensive overview of Russia’s nuclear weapons. It includes informed estimates of the numbers of both launchers and warheads, and there are nice status updates on Russia’s different nuclear capable platforms. For example one can learn that Russia has a total of 4,350 nuclear warheads, of which 1,600 are deployed and ready for use, and 2,750 are in reserve. To this comes 2,500 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement.

Russia is in the midst of a modernization program of its nuclear forces. This was well overdue, as many of their nuclear weapons were getting old and needed replacement. I think some Western observers exaggerate the significance of the modernization program. For some this has led to almost hysterical interpretations of Russia’s intentions. I think that the right way to understand Russia’s nuclear weapons program is that they want to maintain the capabilities that they already have.

Dnepr Launch vehicle
Drepr launch vehicle which carries the SS-18 *Satan* ICBM. According to Kristensen and Norris, Russia has 46 of these missiles with up to 460 warheads. Photo: ISC Kosmotras.

Russia is a nuclear great power and intends to remain as such. A conflict between nuclear powers like the United States and Russia will be fought with nuclear weapons. Assuming that a confrontation could be held at the non-nuclear level is naive.

So where some analysts interpret Russia’s nuclear posture as increasingly aggressive, I will point to two other movements that I find more accurate:

  1. Russia invests in the development of nuclear weapons that can defeat a Western missile defense. The goal is to maintain a second strike capability that Russia has had for many years, but which they fear they can lose if the missile defense technology gets good enough.
  2. Fundamentally the new technology for Russia is in the non-nuclear field. Long-range high-precision missiles give Russia more options than nuclear escalation. At the same time this raises the nuclear threshold and makes armed confrontation more likely because the (illusion of) surgically accurate control of destruction makes it easy for politicians to resort to using such weapons.

The Russian nuclear forces, 2018 review includes a summary of the different positions in the debate about Russia’s nuclear strategy. Unfortunately there is an inclination to the views in the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, which I think gets many things wrong about Russia. But with the two points above in mind, I think that Kristensen and Norris’ column is an outstanding reference about the state of Russia’s nuclear weapons.

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