Strategic Nuclear Forces of Russia and the USA Today and Tomorrow

By Alexander Ermakov, independent military expert

Part I. Land Component 

The escalation of political standoff between Russia and the USA along with an active phase of modernization of the Russian nuclear triad has heightened public interest in Strategic Nuclear Forces (SNF) of the leading countries. In the nearest future, this interest will grow stronger because the U.S. nuclear triad is now facing its modernization phase.


There are nine nations in the world that possess nuclear weapons (NW), such as the USA, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China possessing the NW legally while India, Israel, Pakistan, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea possess it illegally - the first three of them have not signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the North Korea has withdrawn from it. Despite a significant reduction, nuclear arsenals of the USA and Russia considerably surpass other countries’ arsenals. To discuss current and future nuclear arsenals of both countries, we shall overview the terms and conditions of the START III Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) because it drastically influences both countries’ arsenals.

START III Treaty was signed in April 2010 and came into force in February 2011. The current treaty is to be terminated in February 2021, but may be extended under mutual agreement for 5 years. Experts nibble at the future of treaties related to reduction of offensive arms, but there are certain subjective difficulties (deterioration in relations) and objective difficulties - further reduction of strategic nuclear weapons increases the role of tactical nuclear weapons the use of which is not clearly stated in agreements, plus other countries-members of the nuclear club that have to be involved in the process of negotiations, and a growing role of anti-missile defence and advanced non-nuclear high-precision munitions. The benefit is that the discussion of the effective START III Treaty has already been started.

The START III objective is to reach the following levels by February 2018:

  • -700 deployed nuclear delivery vehicles, i.e. the total amount of deployed ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and strategic bomber aircraft;
  •  800 nuclear delivery vehicles including non-deployed vehicles put into storage or intended for tests;
  • 1,550 munitions including warheads for ICBMs, SLBMs and strategic bomber aircraft. The latter are classified not only as a single nuclear delivery vehicle, but also as a single warhead component.

For now, according to published statistic data as of March 1, 2016, both parties are close to reach the required objectives while some levels have already been reached. Thus, the amount of Russia’s deployed nuclear delivery vehicles totals 521 while the USA has 1,481 warheads. It is a paradox, but since September 2013 the amount of warheads in Russia’s arsenal has continuously been growing – the explanation is that new missile systems equipped with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) come into operation faster than old systems with single warheads are discarded. To get out of the limits specified in the START III Treaty, the Russian armed forces will not have to complete the modernization of its nuclear arsenal - in our tradition, this is a non-stop process, – but at least will have to intensify the process to remove obsolescent systems from operational status and replace them with better solutions.

Traditionally, Russia’s SNF are based on the Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), a land component of the nuclear triad. The fact that SRF are a separate military branch that reports directly to the General Staff of Armed Forces of Russia and to the Supreme Commander-in-Chief emphasizes their importance. Moreover, these forces are the first to undergo the process of modernization and they demonstrate the best results in this regard.

Peacemaking Sword

No accurate data on the SRF size and amount is published in Russia, but the matter is widely discussed by mass media, and we may draw some overall conclusions based on open publications in Russia and abroad.

Russia’s SRF operate land-based ICBMs installed in underground silos and on mobile ground missile systems (MGMS), the amount of which is a bit larger. Both solutions are different types of response to the issue related to maximum survivability in nuclear strike conditions and, therefore, to ensure the counterstrike as an inevitable threat the doctrine of nuclear deterrence is based on. A modern underground silo features the highest level of protection. Taking into account the fact that silos are arranged in different locations, at a certain distance from each other, the enemy will have to spend at least one warhead to strike each silo or a few warheads to guarantee target killing (due to a possible failure of an attacking ICMB or a significant miss-distance). A launching silo is easy and inexpensive for operation. The disadvantage is that the enemy is likely to know coordinates of all underground silos, that is why their positions are potentially vulnerable to high-precision non-nuclear weapons. However, this issue may become urgent in a relatively distant future because today’s strategic cruise missiles operate at a subsonic speed, so it would be practically impossible to strike silos all at once.

On the contrary, MGMSs are basically intended not for resistance to nuclear attacks in stationary conditions, but for mobility; since they are scattered during a threatening period, they become survivable to surgical strikes while effective countermeasures against such systems must include massive strikes in deployment areas, preferably, with large-yield munitions. Mobile platform’s resistance to nuclear weapons effects is considerably below silo’s resistance, but even under such circumstances the enemy will have to spend a large number of munitions to guarantee target killing.

The worst case scenario has been discussed above – the best solution here is not a counterstrike, but a launch under attack when an attacked country manages to launch its missiles before enemy's warheads strike deployment areas. The launch-under-attack concept involves nuclear attack warning systems, SNF control system and their operational effectiveness’ and merits’ separate and detailed consideration.

From 1987 to 2005 Russia had a small number of the Molodets railroad ICBM systems for limited use (12 missile trains carrying three launchers per train were produced) - the only railroad ICBM systems that reached the series production stage and combat alert status. From the tactical point of view, the railroad ICBM system is a specific modification of the MGMS system. The main difference is the application of a railroad system during a threatening period for dispersion of a long-distance railroad network. On the one hand, this allows to ensure high mobility; on the other hand, the application of civil infrastructure complicates safety assurance, and, to a certain degree, makes large transportation hubs (i.e. cities) vulnerable to the first strike. Another pressing issue associated with a missile train is if it’s once located by enemy’s reconnaissance systems, it would be difficult for a train to hide again for obvious reasons.

A new Barguzin railroad ICBM system has reached the design stage. It is designed to use more compact missiles that allow to reduce the system weight, and therefore, to improve its operational security. Unlike the Molodets system, this system will not require three diesel locomotives at once. However, the future of the Barguzin project is unclear because it is criticized by its customer and other experts for difficulties in operation and heavy expenses, especially in budget cut conditions, along with its questionable advantages in comparison to widely used wheel-mounted MGMSs.

Wheel-mounted MGMSs, namely the Topol ICMB family, including the RS-12М Topol, RS-12М2 Topol-М and RS-24 Yars, form the basis of SRF. The basic versions of the Topol system have been put on combat alert since 1985 and now they are withdrawn from operational status. This process is to be completed at the beginning of the next decade. The Topol missiles are regularly launched in order to confirm readiness and functionality of the fleet and test new solutions (taking into account that these systems are to be discarded, anyway; they are considered a “flying test lab” available for free). According to various estimations, 54-72 MGMSs of this type will remain operational, taking into account a non-stop process to convert the Topol systems into “non-deployed” systems and further disposal, it would be difficult to determine the exact amount of such system for the time being.

Vladimir Putin

Russia's President Vladimir Putin AFP PHOTO / RIA-NOVOSTI / POOL / MIKHAIL METZEL

“Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN) are the pride of the Armed Forces of Russia, the basis of national security and defence potential of the state. Modern missile systems are the most dangerous and powerful weapons, but these weapons have often saved the world standing on the verge of annihilation, and today they help maintain the nuclear parity on the planet.” Vladimir V. Putin



The RS-12М2 Topol-M systems (first deployment in 2006) and RS-24 Yars systems (first deployment in 2010) are advanced modifications of the Topol system with an improved missile. Due to an increase in the system weight, the number of axes has increased from 7 to 8. The Topol-M and Yars systems are similar in many aspects, but the most important difference is their armament. In comparison to the Topol-M system, which like the basic Topol version is equipped with a single 550 kt warhead, the Yars system is equipped with the MIRV with three or four 150-300 kt warheads (according to various estimations). Using a single warhead for the Topol-M system is associated with the design specifications in accordance with the START II requirements that prohibited to develop missile system with MIRV. After termination of the START II Treaty, the system was rapidly upgraded due to its initial technological potential.

Only 18 Topol-M MGMS units were deployed before transition to the Yars systems. However, its missile (60 missiles have been supplied) has been used since 1998 in order to replace the UR-100N UТТKh (RS‑18А) ICBMwith expired service life in underground silos. At least 63 mobile Yars systems have been deployed. In addition, these systems (no less than 10) are used for further replacement of the UR-100N systems in underground silos.

The RS-26 Rubezh MGMS project with a small-sized missile and a six-axis chassis is under development. Smaller overall dimensions will allow to drastically improve the maneuvering capability of the system, because the Yars systems are too heavy for general roads. It is announced that the Rubezh system is ready for deployment, but its deployment is likely to be suspended due political factors as the USA believes that this system may be employed to hit targets within a range that is significantly lower than 5,500 km and this capability violates the treaty on the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles (INF Treaty).

In addition to the Topol-M and Yars systems, SRF also has silo-based ICBM systems. The UR-100N UТТKh missile systems put on combat alert in 1979 have almost been withdrawn from operational status - no more than 20-30 units remain operational, and the process of withdrawal will be completed in a couple of years. The long-liver is the R-36М2 Voevoda system (RS-20V mostly known by the NATO reporting name - SS-18 Satan) that is the world’s largest ICBM carrying a 8.3 Mt warhead or 10 lightweight 800 kt warheads, plus a powerful antimissile defence penetration system. The R-36M2 missiles were put on combat alert in 1998. For now, 46 missiles of this type remain operational. At the beginning of the next decade they should be replaced with advanced heavy RS-28 Sarmat systems that are capable of carrying no less than 8 warheads, including advanced maneuvering warheads.

In Russia, SRF are the most important part of SNF. For equipping, the top priority is given to MGMSs with high survivability, but silo-based systems remain operational as a low cost option and as a platform for deploying large-yield missiles. In comparison to the Russian Navy, SRF operate not only a larger number of delivery vehicles, but also a larger number of carried warheads. SRF are successfully supplied with new military equipment, and as far as one can estimate, this equipment is successfully mastered during multiple military exercises. As for the Navy, mastering new SLBMs and Nuclear-Powered Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBN) is accompanied with issues and delays. The submarine fleet is still facing the affliction common for the Soviet Navy – a low “time spent underway” coefficient (time spent underwater in per cent). Along with reduction of navy personnel, this leads to such a situation that only one or two SSBNs are on submarine combat patrol at the same time. This cannot be compared to dozens of MGMSs and silo-based missile systems ready to operate.

Ugly Ducklings

In the USA, the land component is the weakest one in comparison to Russia. It is also indicated by the fact that land silo-based ICBMs are included in the Air Force structure - the Air Force Global Strike Command operates the so-called 20th Air Force that includes Missile Squadrons, part of Missile Wings.

The U.S. Army operates LGM-30G Minuteman III system, the only type of ICBM available. The first Minuteman III systems were put on combat alert as far back as 1970 and at that time became a breakthrough solution due to the first application of MIRV. Of course, since then a large number of modernization programs were implemented, basically intended to enhance operational reliability and safety. One of the most crucial modifications left the Minuteman III system without MIRV – instead of three 350 kt warheads only a single 300 kt warhead was installed. Officially, with this modification the USA demonstrated the defensive behavior of their nuclear weapons concept, because MIRVs were primarily useful for the first strike scenario, when a single nuclear delivery vehicle was able to destroy a few enemy’s delivery vehicles. However, the true reason for such a modification was likely to optimize the distribution pool available under the START III Treaty – without such measures the USA would have to cut down the most important programs related to SSBN and Trident II missiles.

“New” warheads were removed from the LGM-118 Peacekeeper systems that were newly developed and more advanced ICBMs (first deployment in 1986). Each Peacekeeper system was able to deliver 10 warheads instead of three, with higher precision and longer range. This missile was justly classified as the equivalent to the Soviet Union’s Satan missile. But certain difficulties during development and the end of the Cold War resulted in production of quite a small batch of the Peacekeeper missiles – only 50 missiles were put on combat alert. The U.S. development programs related to MGMSs and railroad ICBM systems were not implemented for the same reasons. In late 1980s, under the influence of some developments in the Soviet Union, the project of a railroad ICBM system with the Peacekeeper missiles and the MGMS project with the new-small-sized MGM-134 Midgetman missile reached the active development phase. Both programs were closed in 1991-92 at the prototype testing phase. The Peacekeeper missiles were withdrawn from operational status in 2005, within the scope of measures under the START II Treaty.

The USA plans to keep 400 Minuteman III missiles operational by 2018. To accomplish this objective, 50 missiles will be put in “non-deployed” conditions, i.e. missiles will be put into storage while underground silos are to be buried. Thus, land-based ICBMs make a significant part (over 50%) in the pool of delivery vehicles while nobody plans to increase the number of SSBN and bomber aircraft. However, the number of warheads for the naval component is 2 to 3 times higher.

In the USA, the main objective of the land component in new conditions is to “pose threat”, because for effective damage of underground silos, the enemy will have to spend a number of munitions that are larger than the total amount of munitions stored in silos. With this approach, requirements for missiles are not severe – the matter is that the enemy should believe that missiles are capable of liftoff. For the Minuteman III missiles, however, even liftoff may become a challenge sooner or later. These missiles are to be replaced under the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program. The capability to develop a MGMS or a railroad ICBM system has been analyzed, but a silo-based missile system has eventually been chosen as the cheapest and simplest solution. The GBSD program has reached an intense financing phase in 2016. The estimated cost of the 30-year program for development, production, and modernization of the ground infrastructure totals $62.3 billion. It is planned that the first missile squadron under the GBSD program will be put on combat alert in 2029. The Minuteman III missiles will be completely replaced by 2036, but delays are incident to most defence programs.

Though, the GBSD program is unlikely to be completed in full, because the U.S. land component will be the first to be cut down if any further agreements to reduce nuclear weapons are concluded. And now, with a relatively comfortable format of the START III Treaty, there are some proposals to reduce the segment of the land component or even to fully replace it with more resistant SSBN and multirole bomber aircraft.

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