By J C Suresh
Russia is in the midst of a comprehensive modernization of its nuclear forces that began more than a decade ago. The upgrade, which involves replacing all Soviet-era ballistic missiles with fewer improved missiles, is now approaching a point at which the number of modern weapons will shortly exceed the number of old ones, In a decade, virtually all of the Soviet-era weapons will be gone. This will leave in place a significantly smaller but effective force that will be more mobile than the one it replaces, according to a new study.
The paper published by experts at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimates that as of March 2013, Russia has a military stockpile of approximately 4,500 nuclear warheads, of which roughly 1,800 strategic warheads are deployed on missiles and at bomber bases. Another 700 strategic warheads are in storage, along with 2,000 nonstrategic warheads. In addition to the military stockpile for operational forces, a large number – some 4,000 – of retired but still largely intact warheads await dismantlement.
Authors of the paper titled ‘Russian nuclear forces, 2013’, Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris point out that unlike Britain, France, and the United States, Russia has not declared how many warheads it possesses in its nuclear stockpile. Moreover, although transparency about Russian strategic nuclear forces is increasing for the US government due to data exchanges and on-site inspections, it is decreasing at the public level for the international arms control community.
This is because Russia does not disclose such information and the US government has stopped releasing aggregate data supplied to it by Russia under strategic arms reduction agreements. As a result, there is some uncertainty in the estimates provided in the paper named the ‘Nuclear Notebook’.
Nevertheless, based on public statements made by Russian officials, newspaper articles, observations from commercial satellite images, private conversations with government officials, and their analysis of Russian nuclear forces over many years, the authors are confident that the paper provides “the best unclassified estimate of Russian nuclear forces”.
ICBMs with warheads
According to Kristensen and Norris, Russia deploys an estimated 326 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with nearly 1,050 warheads. The ICBMs are organized under the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF). The two experts say that over the next decade, Russia’s ICBM force is scheduled to undergo significant changes.
The ICBMs are organized under the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) into three missile armies with a total of 12 divisions, a structure the SRF commander, Colonel-General Sergei Karakayev, says will continue through 2016 and beyond.
Over the next decade, Russia’s ICBM force is scheduled to undergo significant changes. By 2016, according to Karakayev, SS-18, SS-19, and SS-25 missiles will constitute only about 40 percent of the ICBM force, down from approximately 72 percent in 2011. To meet this goal, over the next four years Russia will have to retire more than half of its ICBM force, mainly mobile SS-25s. By 2021, according to the announced plans, 98 percent of the old missiles will be gone.
The FAS experts aver that to compensate for the retirement of old missiles, Russia is planning to produce significant numbers of SS-27 Mod. 2 (RS-24) ICBMs. “But the current and expected production and deployment rate of new ICBMs is not rapid enough to offset the retirement of the old missiles. Even if Russia manages to deploy an average of 15 new missiles per year – something it has not been able to accomplish over the past two decades – by the early 2020s the ICBM force will likely shrink to around 220 missiles, nearly one-third fewer than today.”
According to the paper, Russia deploys three kinds of SS-27 missiles: the SS-27 Mod. 1, a single-warhead missile that comes in either mobile (RS-12M1) or silo-based (RS-12M2) variants, and the SS-27 Mod. 2 (RS-24), called the Yars in Russia, a mobile missile equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs).
Deployment of the SS-27 Mod. 1 was completed in 2012 at a total of 78 missiles: 60 silo-based missiles with the 60th Missile Division in Tatishchevo and 18 road-mobile missiles with the 54th Guards Missile Division at Teykovo.
Future ICBM deplyoments
Kristensen and Norris envisage that all new Russian ICBM deployments for the foreseeable future will be of MIRVed RS-24 ICBMs. Deployment of the first two regiments with a total of 18 mobile missiles has been completed at the 54th Guards Missile Division at Teykovo, northeast of Moscow. Preparations began in 2012 for three additional missile divisions to receive the RS-24:
Initially, silo-based RS-24s will be deployed at the 28th Missile Guards Division at Kozelsk to replace the SS-19s, and then mobile RS-24s will replace SS-25s at the 51st Missile Guards Division at Irkutsk and the 39th Guards Missile Division at Novosibirsk. Once Irkutsk and Novosibirsk are complete, deployment will follow at the 42nd Missile Division at Nizhniy Tagil, replacing SS-25s currently deployed there. After silo-based RS-24s are installed at Kozelsk, deployment will follow at the 13th Missile Division at Dombarovsky, replacing the SS-18s currently deployed there (Interfax-AVN, 2012d, 2012e).
“Once completed, this transformation will reduce the Russian ICBM force structure from 12 to 7 missile divisions: 3 silo divisions (1 SS-27 Mod. 1 and 2 SS-27 Mod. 2, or RS-24), and 4 mobile divisions (1 SS-27 Mod. 1 and 5 SS-27 Mod. 2, or RS-24). Most significant, replacing mobile, single-warhead SS-25 missiles with mobile, MIRVed RS-24 missiles could increase the portion of mobile ICBM warheads from 15 percent today to approximately 70 percent by 2022,” says the paper.
The two experts are not sure how many warheads each RS-24 carries. A US defence official told them last year (2012) that the missile can carry up to six warheads, which would be similar to the loading on the sea-based variant, the Bulava. But the head of the SRF is on record saying the RS-24 can carry up to four warheads, and a Bush administration official stated in 2009 that Russian flight tests had demonstrated the capability to carry three warheads. “We are therefore revising our estimate and will count up to four warheads per RS-24,” the experts say.
The paper further notes that Russia is developing a new, liquid-fuelled, heavy, silo-based ICBM. The missile is included in Russia’s arms procurement program through 2020, with a goal of deployment in 2018. Since Russia will first have to create a liquid-fuel ICBM production line, which it does not currently have, it is likely that delays will occur. Though the new heavy ICBM is widely assumed to be a replacement for the SS-18, some SS-18s are scheduled to be replaced by the silo-based RS-24, the experts say.
They found out that Russia is adjusting the operations of its mobile ICBMs, with each battalion spending longer periods deployed away from its garrison. A Russian television crew accompanying the 54th Guards Missile Division at Teykovo on a combat patrol in July 2012, for example, reported that “the time the missile troops remain on combat patrol routes has gone up considerably. From now on, the military have to remain in position at secret locations in the woods for 20 days in a row”.
The mobile missile units are also being equipped with a new “modernized engineering support and camouflaging vehicle (MIOM-M)” designed to improve the ability of the missile launchers to remain undetected during alert deployments. This includes providing “concealment and imitation of a missile system in field positions, distortion of tracks of system units immediately after they have been taken [sic], including the rolling on of tracks leading to false positions and objects”.
Five ICBMs were test-launched in 2012, and an SRF spokesperson said 11 ICBM launches were scheduled for 2013.
New class submarines
The paper points out that after more than 15 years of design, development, and production, the first of the new Borei-class (or Borey) ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) entered into service on January 13, 2013. Twenty-five years have passed since the last SSBN was commissioned in Russia. The new SSBN begins the transition from Soviet-era missile submarine designs to a new SSBN class of eight planned boats scheduled to replace the current Delta III and Delta IV models by the early 2020s; the first boat is named Yuri Dolgoruki. The current SSBN fleet consists of 10 boats: one Borei, six Delta IVs, and three Delta IIIs. Combined they carry 160 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with up to 624 warheads.
The Russian navy declared in 2012 that continuous SSBN deterrent patrols would resume by midyear. But according to information obtained by the authors of the paper from the US Navy under the Freedom of Information Act, Russian SSBNs only conducted four to six patrols during all of 2012. “The duration of Russian SSBN patrols is not known but is assumed to be considerably shorter than US SSBN patrols, each of which lasts an average of about 70 days. With only five to six operational SSBNs in 2012, the number of Russian patrols may have been insufficient to maintain continuous patrols,” says the paper.