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Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

Nuclear Parity and National Security In New Conditions

by Anatoly Diakov, Timur Kadyshev and Pavel Podvig

This paper was published in "Russian Nuclear Policy: Problems and Prospects" (Ed. by Ivan Safranchouk), The PIR Study Papers, N 14, May, 2000, pp. 40-47

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After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO), the post-World War II bipolar system of international relations ceased to exist. We have to admit that, despite all the shortcomings typical of a tough confrontation model, nuclear deterrence provided for the quite stable and relatively calm development of the world during several decades. Obviously, one should appreciate the actions of the US and Soviet leadership, which sought and found peaceful solutions to crises. However, the main factor mitigating the tension between the parties was the existence of nuclear weapons, which, if used to solve the differences, would have led to mutually assured destruction.

When the USSR collapsed, Russia and the USA lost the basis for military-political confrontation, i.e. irreconcilable ideological contradictions. The disappearance (or perhaps the drastic weakening) of one of the poles ended the bipolar world. The Cold War concepts of bilateral deterrence were no longer topical and require revision and, presumably, replacement. One of such concepts is nuclear parity and its role in maintaining state security. This theory was vitally important in rigid confrontation but is not suitable for the situations when there are no irreconcilable ideological differences between the former adversaries and when the key task in the area of nuclear weapons is their balanced reduction. What is the current role of nuclear parity? Should this concept be followed or be replaced?

The Nuclear Parity Concept: Its Emergence and Evolution

Immediately after World War II, the USA, which was the first to develop nuclear weapons and, thus, left behind the rest of the world, began to build up its nuclear arsenal to ensure its superiority in this area. This course of action was aimed at achieving military superiority over the USSR so that the USA could dictate the rules of the game and destroy the USSR, under certain circumstances, at least, as a developed state. The USA had such an opportunity for several years before the USSR constructed its own nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

As soon as the Soviets acquired nuclear arms, and hence the ability for retaliatory strike, the USA accelerated the pace of nuclear build-up. In the mid-1960s the US nuclear arsenal reached its peak and amounted to more than 30,000 warheads. The possession of such a huge nuclear arsenal was necessary to disarm the enemy with a nuclear strike. At the same time, nuclear weapons were supposed to play a decisive role in resolving armed conflicts. The US nuclear superiority in the 1960s implied that an exchange of counter-force strikes (i.e. strikes against military targets only) during a limited nuclear conflict would have led to the US victory. Hence, any retaliatory counter-force strikes of the Soviet Union would have only deteriorated its situation because of the remaining US nuclear arsenal. Thus it was only natural that the Soviet nuclear concept, approved in the early 1960s, was based on the principle of unlimited retaliatory strike, i.e. any US counter-force strike would have resulted in the Soviet counter-value strike to inflict unacceptable damage. This concept met the interests of nuclear deterrence but, evidently, the decision-making barrier for a total retaliatory strike was quite high, since one could hardly compare the damage from the first strike with the damage inflicted by the second strike. This balance of power affected the entire system of political relations and weakened the position of the USSR.

Obviously, Moscow was not satisfied with the situation that a total retaliatory strike, and hence unlimited nuclear war (equal to suicide), was the only response in the case of an escalating limited conflict. Thus, the USSR made titanic efforts and achieved relative nuclear parity with the USA in the early 1970s. The system of strategic nuclear weapons created a state of strategic balance in which each party possessed the capability to inflict unacceptable damage in a retaliatory strike – the essence of the concept of mutually assured destruction. At the same time, at this stage, neither party, theoretically, had the ability to gain superiority after exchanging counter-force strikes. However, the USA continued to seek such superiority. The most vivid example was the US forward deployment of nuclear forces in Europe and the Reagan doctrine of limited nuclear war.

The concept of mutually assured destruction provided for a strategic balance and each party was interested only in maintaining the ability to inflict unacceptable damage in a retaliatory strike. This situation implied that the parties would not strive to obtain the ability of making a first disarming strike, since such a change would have destabilized the balance and provoked the other party to make a preemptive strike.

Nonetheless, the balance concerning total nuclear war did not ensure a balance concerning lower-scale conflicts. Such conflicts included the aforementioned exchange of counter-force strikes and conventional arms conflicts. When TNW emerged, the conflict with the use of TNW joined this group in an intermediate position.

TNW were, in fact, NATO's response to WTO's conventional superiority in Europe. For European NATO members, TNW guaranteed US participation in defense of an armed conflict. Meanwhile, the USA, making plans to use TNW in conventional conflicts, believed it could contain the conflict within Europe. The USSR rapidly deployed its TNW in response (the adequacy of this response can be called into question). Thus, the unstable situation concerning conventional forces in Europe transformed into a nuclear balance. However, this balance was asymmetric, since TNW deployed in Europe belonged to the USA and were targeted at the USSR. The US territory, at the same time, could not be reached by the Soviet tactical nukes. Nonetheless, stability concerning conventional and tactical arms in Europe played a positive part in achieving and maintaining global balance.

One of the most important instruments for achieving strategic balance (or unilateral superiority) is strategic defense. Strategic defense is known for its paradoxical nature: the concept of mutually assured destruction implies that the protection of valued facilities (cities) is a destabilizing and aggressive act, since it deprives the enemy of inflicting unacceptable damage with a retaliatory strike. At the same time, activities to enhance the viability of offensive nuclear means are stabilizing and defensive by nature, since they help to preserve the potential for retaliatory strike.

The development of missile defense systems is an expensive action with unpredictable results. The creation of such a system would have provided an impetus for an arms race in this area and in adjacent spheres, i.e. the modernization of offensive means (equipping them with gadgets to penetrate the defense), the build-up and development of anti-defense systems, anti-anti-defense systems, etc. Moreover, the development of missile defense systems to counter a massive nuclear strike implies the commissioning of means that have been tested in conditions significantly different from the would-be situation of their deployment and hence, have an unknown efficiency. Therefore, the parties lose stability factors as important as certainty about the efficiency of its own means and information about the capabilities of the enemy. This understanding resulted in the 1972 ABM Treaty with indefinite term.

However, in the mid-1980s, the USA made another attempt to gain superiority with the help of SDI (whose co-lateral damage was the Soviet involvement in a new extremely expensive arms race). If one presumes that the USSR had survived in this arms race and the parties had implemented all measures relating to the deployment of such systems (development of the systems, modernization of offensive means, development of counteraction means, etc.), the planet would have found itself at a new higher, more unstable, and far more dangerous level of nuclear stockpiles.

The changes that have occurred during the last 10 years have significantly changed the military-political situation in the world and have had a positive impact on the strategic balance. Some of these changes can be regarded as positive (e.g. the end of ideological confrontation); others are negative (the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of one of the poles). However, all these changes inevitably result in a number of complicated and dangerous transitions to a new system of international relations.

The New International Situation and Nuclear Weapons

The demise of WTO led to dramatic changes concerning conventional arms in Europe and turned the world situation upside down. Nowadays, NATO, whose expansion to the east is under way, has superiority in conventional arms. At present, Russia assigns to TNW those missions that NATO used to speak about until the late 1980s. With the lack of ideological confrontation, the transition to a partnership between Russia and Western nations should have resulted in the complete elimination of TNW in Europe. However, the USA still sticks to the concept of the past implying that nuclear weapons will help to involve the USA in European defense. It is noteworthy that NATO states also consider the US nukes in Europe to be an important political factor contributing to the unity of the Alliance. Taking into account the manifold conventional superiority of NATO and the absence of ideological contradictions between Russia and the Western countries, this concept looks obsolete.

As the geopolitical situation in the world has changed (from a stable bipolar world to an unstable uni-polar or multi-polar world) and as Russia's role has diminished to the level of a regional power, the role of nuclear weapons in the state strategic concept has transformed. During the Cold War, nuclear arms helped to deter the parties from escalating a potential armed conflict. Nowadays, nuclear weapons serve to maintain national security and are the core of the defense concept. Soviet superiority in conventional arms no longer exists. In the next few years, there may emerge some other regional powers or coalitions, whose conventional might will exceed Russian potential. Under these circumstances and before mighty conventional forces emerge (which requires economic growth), its nuclear arsenal will be the most significant factor in maintaining Russia's national security.

We have to emphasize that deep strategic nuclear arms reduction in accordance with START I and START II does not contradict the new security concept. According to the theory of mutually assured destruction, the USA and Russia will still maintain a strategic balance, even if the reduction process goes beyond START II limits. We cannot rule out, however, that natural aging of warheads and delivery systems will make Russian arsenal decrease faster than is provided in START treaties. Nonetheless, this arsenal will be enough to maintain a balance with the USA under the concept of mutually assured destruction and all-azimuth defense.

The changes in the qualitative and quantitative parameters of nuclear arsenal have some inertia. This is why it is necessary to elaborate as soon as possible the concept of the further development of Russian nuclear arsenal.

We believe that this process can take either of two directions: maintain parity with the USA or stick to the concept of minimal deterrence.

Parity will mean preserving relative equality between the US-Russian nuclear arsenals - in the number of warheads and launchers, which implies a symmetric structure of the SNF. In a broader sense, parity will mean equal opportunities, i.e. equal chances to use nuclear forces; whereas the development of arsenals will depend on the preferences of either party.

Since the early 1970s, the USSR and the USA have established a parity of opportunities - chances to exchange limited counter-force strikes without breaking the limits of sustainable balance and to destroy each other and the Earth several times over. START II enhances the symmetry of the structure of the US-Russian nuclear arsenals and hence, helps parties reach a relative quantitative parity. However, the main burden of changes, necessary to achieve this symmetry, lies on the shoulders of Russia. Besides, this symmetry can be actually noticed only at the level of limits, since, due to economic reasons, Russia will not have an opportunity to use the allowed number of warheads in full.

The concept of minimal deterrence envisages maintain a nuclear arsenal that would ensure the deterrence of any aggressor by inflicting assured unacceptable damage in a retaliatory strike. At first sight, this concept corresponds with the Soviet approach at the early stage of the arms race and US nuclear superiority and has the above-mentioned disadvantage – a high threshold for using the nuclear arsenal in response to a counter-force strike, when the damage from the first attack is not comparable to the results of the second counter-value strike.

However, it is worth pointing out that an irreconcilable ideological confrontation no longer dominates modern international system. As a result, military confrontation has diminished or disappeared. Hence, the scenario of counter-force strikes to achieve a unilateral superiority is no longer used in military planning, at least, as far as the N-5 are concerned.

Prospects for the Russian SNF in the Near Future

Adoption of this or that concept of nuclear forces development depends on the situation of the SNF and the real economic capabilities of the state.

In early 2000, Russia possessed about 6,000 nuclear warheads, most of which were allotted to MIRVed ICBMs which are to be eliminated if START II enters into force. The majority of these systems were deployed in the 1980s and their service life will soon expire. The Program of SNF Development approved by the RF Security Council in July 1998 was not published, but Russia's capabilities in this area are quite limited and the ways of the nuclear forces' development are quite predictable. Although, at that time, the fate of START II was not clear, the program was based on the assumption that the treaty would sooner or later become effective. This is why, presumably, the program did not provide for extending the service life of MIRVed ICBMs or developing a new multi-warhead ICBM. Instead, the program could contain a new schedule for developing missile systems which would meet START II restrictions.

The key strategic missile for the near future is the single-warhead Topol-M system. Due to insufficient funding, work on this missile was delayed and it is quite difficult to assess the pace of its production. Russia plans to gradually increase the pace of production, which may reach about 40-50 missiles per year. By late 2008, Russia may possess about 300 Topol-M missiles.

As far as sea-based forces are concerned, construction of the first SSBN of a new type - Yury Dolgoruky - started in 1996. According to the initial plan, such submarines would have been armed with SS-N-20 missiles. The latter would have also replaced SS-N-20 missiles of the Typhoon-type submarines, since the service life of SS-N-20 had expired and their production had stopped. However, after a series of failed test launches, Russia canceled the program of SS-N-20 development and decided to design a new SLBM for Yury Dolgoruky-type vessels (because of this, the construction of the submarine was suspended). This decision left Typhoon-type submarines without missiles. Three out of six Typhoons have already been decommissioned and the rest will be decommissioned in two or three years. Moreover, the decision to develop the new SLBM means that the new SSBN will be commissioned no sooner than 2007-2008. Optimistically, the new submarine will be built before the service life of Delta IV-type submarines expires.

Strategic Air Force units seemed to survive the reforms without huge casualties. Despite demands to eliminate this component of the nuclear triad, the Air Force is strengthening its armament. The aforementioned program for the SNF must envisage the development of a new long-range ALCM to be mounted on strategic aircraft. Russia acquired from Ukraine eight Blackjack and three Bear H bombers, carrying more than 500 ALCMs. These weapons, plus several more aircraft under construction at the Gorbunov Aircraft Production Association in Kazan, will enable Russia to deploy a complete regiment of Blackjack aircraft and to reinforce the air-based nuclear forces. Practically all deployed strategic bombers were manufactured no later than the late 1980s and will be operational until 2010 and beyond.

Thus, by 2008, Russia will have about 1,300 warheads (attributed to 300 Topol-M missile systems, seven Delta IV submarines and 80 bombers). This means that Russia will not be able to reach the level of START II (3,000-3,500 warheads) or even the level of START III (2,000-2,500 warheads) mentioned in the 1997 Helsinki agreements.

The situation will change only if START II does not enter into force and Russia does not have to comply with its provisions. In this case, Russia will preserve its MIRVed ICBMs. Though the service life of most of these missiles will expire by 2005, Russia will be able to maintain its land-based SNF at a level exceeding that of START II, thanks to its SS-18 missiles. Deployment of these missiles started in 1988 in Kazakhstan, the last missiles produced were delivered to Russia from Ukraine in 1992 after the demise of the Soviet Union. According to some sources, at present, 56-58 such missiles are deployed. Their total number is even higher, since 104 missiles withdrawn from Kazakhstan belonged to the SS-18 type. They can be deployed in Russia to replace the previous modification of this missile. Russia may also deploy about 30 SS-19 missiles withdrawn from Ukraine, whose service life will last for nearly 20 years from the date of deployment. Besides, SS-19 missiles were manufactured in Russia unlike Ukraine-made SS-18.

According to our estimates, if Russia makes the decision to maintain its MIRVed ICBMs it may deploy up to 90 SS-18 missiles (with 10 warheads allotted to each system) and about 30 SS-19 missiles (with 6 warheads each), whose service life will not expire until 2010. Moreover, Russia may test Topol-M missile to see if it can carry three re-entry vehicles, enabling Moscow to increase the number of warheads attributed to land-based forces and to reach the level of 3,000 warheads.

It is noteworthy that these activities will not require serious effort or expenditure in addition to what has been already planned. The Soviet experience demonstrated that service life could easily be extended. All other projects, such as the development of the new SLBM and the construction of the new SSBNs and heavy bombers, will not be affected by the aforementioned activities. The key problem will the development of a new MIRVed ICBM to replace the SS-18 missiles after their decommissioning in order to ensure the level of 3,000 warheads. Taking into account the economic situation in Russia, the prospects for the design and deployment of such missiles are quite uncertain. However, Russia has a number of possibilities to investigate in the next five years. One of them is the development of a new missile on the basis of the SS-24 and SS-N-20 (which have a common first stage and whose production moved to Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union). Another more realistic prospect is to accelerate the production of the triple-warhead Topol-M missile. Thus, Russia will, presumably, be able to maintain its SNF at a level of 3,000 warheads even after 2008; an increase in arsenal above this level is hardly possible.

The ABM Treaty and Stability

The deterrence potential of a nuclear arsenal depends on many parameters, such as the viability of the means for a retaliatory strike, efficiency of their usage against enemy targets, etc. As we have already mentioned, one of the reasons for signing the 1972 ABM Treaty was the parties' willingness to be sure of the capabilities of their strategic forces and the forces of the enemy, in order to maintain strategic stability. In fact, the treaty fixed the rules of the game, following which any party could be confident that the enemy would not make useless its offensive potential by deploying a missile defense system.

Nowadays, the USA is persistently promoting the idea of modifying the treaty and justifies itself by proclaiming a need to ensure defense against the missiles of rogue states. Russia believes that there is no such threat and that missile defense is not an adequate response to such challenges, if they are realistic. Moscow also presumes that the main US objective in this area is not to defend itself from unauthorized or individual launches but to develop a strategic missile defense system, which will deny Russia of the opportunity to make a retaliatory strike.

We will leave aside the debate about realistic or unrealistic character of the threat to the USA. Let us just mention that in case of START II implementation Russia will have about 1,000 warheads for retaliatory strike. If nuclear arms reduction continues jointly with the USA to the level of 2,000-2,500 or even 1,500 warheads, there will be several hundreds of warheads left to ensure Russia's response to any US aggression. Development of the missile defense system to intercept several dozens of warheads (which would be enough to ensure protection against all rogue states) will have no impact on the Russian retaliatory might, even if bilateral reduction reach the level of 1,500 warheads.

Thus, it would be reasonable to approach the ABM-NMD issues by taking into account concerns of both states. These apprehensions include the problems of the transparency of the characteristics of the systems to be developed and the verification of their deployment to rule out the possibility for their sudden enhancement, which would affect the retaliatory strike potential of Russia. As provisions of the modified treaty are negotiated, the parties could involve other nuclear club members, whose concerns may be even more acute than Russia's.

It is useful to emphasize that the depreciation of the Russian response potential (which is not realistic in the near future) would not meet the US national security interests. As we mentioned above, the strategic stability of nuclear deterrence is based on the certainty of each party in the capabilities of its own retaliatory strike and the retaliatory might of the enemy. Hence, in critical situations, the parties would refrain from making the first strike. But if either party believes that it has lost its retaliatory potential, it may resort to preemptive strike. Thus, while benefiting from a strategic missile defense system, the USA would add uncertainty to the SNF of both states and would undermine its own security.

NATO Enlargement

It is known that the reason for the US forward deployment in Europe and for developing and deploying TNW was apprehension about WTO conventional superiority. This accounted for the development of the concepts of flexible response, limited nuclear war in Europe, and specific plans for nuclear arms deployment, including NATO members' consent to have nuclear weapons deployed on their territory.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and WTO helped NATO to gain manifold superiority over Russia in conventional arms. After the enlargement of NATO, the Russian position has been even more exacerbated. In this situation, the official consent of the new NATO members to have nuclear weapons deployed on their territory and the ambiguous answers of the US officials to that effect look strange. From the military point of view, it is senseless for NATO, since the organization enjoys conventional superiority. Moreover, such an attitude of the NATO states to TNW calls into question the implementation of the unilateral initiatives set forth by Presidents Bush, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Some Russian experts call for returning ground-based and sea-based TNW to the troops to neutralize NATO's superiority in conventional arms and to prevent further pressure on Russia.

Thus, the scenario of nuclear weapons deployment in Europe, as it was during the Cold War, may be repeated, though these developments can be avoided if the parties demonstrate good will.


While selecting this or that concept of nuclear forces' development, one should take into account a number of different factors, including the economic situation. As far as the Russian SNF are concerned, this factor significantly limits the field for maneuver and the scope of opportunities. However, the conclusions below are not based on economic considerations only.

The concept of nuclear parity is no longer necessary for Russia from a military point of view. It was vitally important during tough ideological bipolar confrontation but nowadays, it is redundant and gives no extra security assurances in forming a multi-polar world, unlike the concept of minimal deterrence and all-azimuth defense. Nuclear weapons are still playing a leading role in maintaining Russian national security. For a number of economic reasons, Russia cannot maintain relative quantitative parity with the USA. There is no need for this equality - Russian security can be provided with fewer means. At the same time, to ensure strategic stability in nuclear arms reduction, one should pay particular attention to the viability of the deterrence potential. Meanwhile, it is impossible to continue an equal dialogue on further arms reduction without maintaining a relative quantitative parity of all states involved in the process. Thus, we can say that the refusal to maintain quantitative strategic parity with the USA will not affect Russian military security but will make it impossible to continue bilateral nuclear disarmament.

The existing problems, such as the fate of the ABM Treaty or NATO expansion to the east, are directly connected with the issue of providing Russian national security and selecting a concept for SNF development. Two aforementioned problems have political solutions, which can be found if Russia and the West develop real partnership.

It would be reasonable to approach the ABM-NMD issues, taking into account the problems of the transparency of the characteristics of the systems to be developed and the verification of their deployment to rule out the chances for their sudden enhancement, which would affect the retaliatory strike potential.

The problems of NATO enlargement and the security of Russian borders can be solved within the framework of new negotiations on conventional arms limitation in Europe, similar to those solutions resulting from in the 1990 CFE Treaty. Russia should put forward an initiative to sign a new CFE treaty, which would meet new military-political conditions. Such a treaty should provide for the withdrawal and non-deployment of nuclear weapons beyond national territories.

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