Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies


Russia to Lose Its Nuclear Status

January 31, 2000

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According to Russian media (see Nezavisimaya Gazeta of January 19, 2001), Russian President signed a decree that approved the Armed Forces development program. According to one of the main articles of this decree, Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN) cease to exist as one of the four main services of the Armed Forces. First, RVSN will turn into an independent branch, and then will become a part of the Air Force.

Thus, the war between Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and Chief of General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin is won by the latter. Apparently, having served most of his time in the Army, General A. Kvashnin never understood why the structure of Russian Nuclear Forces is different from the American one. It is this very structure that the Russian Nuclear Forces is going to be transformed to. Sea- and air-based strategic nuclear forces (SNF) will form the main part of it. Air-based SNF, the weakest leg of the Russian nuclear triad, will make up roughly half of it - about 600-700 warheads (the figure is derived from the number of strategic bombers deployed with the Air Force), while their role in the retaliatory strike was traditionally next to nothing during almost entire period of the existence of SNF. With this purpose, the General Staff and Air Force command initiated purchase of Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bombers from Ukraine. These aircraft were not used and serviced for almost ten years, and we believe that only financial hardships forced Russian pilots to fly these aircraft from Ukraine to Russia since they could only be cleared for take-off after major overhaul at the manufacturer's plant.

RVSN missile systems reliability level, combat readiness, and controllability in any conditions have always been better than those of sea- and air-based SNF. Development, deployment and operation costs for land-based force have also been lower than those of sea- and air-based SNF.

Why General A. Kvashnin insists on this way of restructuring Russian Armed Forces in general and SNF particularly? We believe that the only reason is that, on his view, in this case certain extra financial resources will be freed to spend on improvement of fighting efficiency of conventional forces. However, simple calculations show that, taking into account costs of the suggested measures (sharp reductions of RVSN without extension of the service life of the existing RVSN missile systems), improvement of fighting efficiency of conventional forces will be negligible (about 3-4%).

What will happen to Russian SNF?

If the strategic triad will be be reduced to 1500 warheads, which will include 600-700 warheads in air-based SNF (ASNF) and around 700 warheads in sea-based SNF (NSNF), then land-based force will include 100-200 warheads. We'll consider the role of ASNF in the retaliatory strike as next to zero in view of their poor survivability and efficiency. Thus real strategic nuclear force will include 800-900 warheads. NSNF will have 6-7 SSBNs, out of which one or two (i.e. about 200 warheads) will be on patrol at sea. Thus, in fact only 300-400 warheads will be maintained on permanent combat readiness while US will have 1750 warheads on permanent combat readiness out of 3000-3500 total (this figure does not take into account hedge - the level of START II).

START II will very likely not enter into force because of the position of the US Congress, however, according to President G. Bush's statements, the US can unilaterally reduce their SNF down to START II level. This will lead to a situation when even without US deployment of NMD effectiveness of Russian retaliatory strike will be next to zero since 200-400 warheads are required to destroy an RVSN launcher, few warheads are required to destroy ASNF in the air bases, also few warheads are required to destroy SSBNs in the bases. To destroy 1-2 SSBNs at sea anti-submarine warfare will be used that will have exact targeting information and several warheads. Remaining 1250 warheads will be used to destroy Russian military and economic potential and large military objects of the conventional forces.

Besides, this kind of SNF reform will not promote US interest in resumption of talks with Russia on further reductions of strategic nuclear forces and on preservation of the 1972 ABM Treaty.

At the same time, by 2020-2030, Russian SNF will become comparable in size to those of UK, France, Chine, and later those of India and Pakistan. One can conclude that Russia is becoming not even a second-, but a third-rate nuclear power, which by 2020-2030 will let Pakistan and India by.

Pyotr B. Romashkin
Colonel, Ret.
Contact address:

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Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT, 2001