Russia is developing a host of new strategic nuclear weapons designed to defeat American missile defenses.
According to the Kremlin, Russia was spurred into action by U.S. Pres. George W. Bush’s Dec. 13, 2001 decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. However, while the Russians are developing a host of new weapons, there will likely be little overall impact on the strategic balance between Moscow and Washington.
The real problem is that these developments strain the hard-won arms control regime that played a decisive role in helping bring the Cold War with the Soviet Union to a close. Moreover, as tensions between the United States and Russia continue to increase, the two great powers seem to be drifting into what can only be described as a new Cold War.
“During all these years since the unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, we have been working intensively on advanced equipment and arms, which allowed us to make a breakthrough in developing new models of strategic weapons,” Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin said during a March 1 address to the Federal Assembly.
“Let me recall that the United States is creating a global missile defense system primarily for countering strategic arms that follow ballistic trajectories. These weapons form the backbone of our nuclear deterrence forces, just as of other members of the nuclear club.”
Russia’s nuclear deterrent
To counter what the Kremlin sees as the United States’ goal of undermining Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent, Moscow has embarked on a program to develop new weapons capable of defeating any new American ballistic missile defense system.
“Russia has developed, and works continuously to perfect, highly effective but modestly priced systems to overcome missile defense. They are installed on all of our intercontinental ballistic missile complexes,” Putin said. “In addition, we have embarked on the development of the next generation of missiles.”
Among those weapons is the formidable Sarmat heavy liquid-fuelled intercontinental ballistic missile, which is being developed as a replacement for the massive 210-ton R-36M2 Voevoda, which is appropriately called the SS-18 Satan by NATO. The weapon flies on novel trajectories to thwart any attempt at interception by missile defenses.
“Sarmat will replace the Voevoda system made in the USSR. Its immense power was universally recognized. Our foreign colleagues even gave it a fairly threatening name,” Putin said.
“The capabilities of the Sarmat missile are much higher. Weighing over 200 tons, it has a short boost phase, which makes it more difficult to intercept for missile defense systems. The range of the new heavy missile, the number and power of its combat blocs is bigger than Voevoda’s. Sarmat will be equipped with a broad range of powerful nuclear warheads, including hypersonic, and the most modern means of evading missile defense. The high degree of protection of missile launchers and significant energy capabilities the system offers will make it possible to use it in any conditions.”
What makes the Sarmat particularly formidable is the weapons’ ability to fly a trajectory over the South Pole, completely bypassing any current U.S. missile defense system. “It can attack targets both via the North and South poles,” Putin said. “Sarmat is a formidable missile and, owing to its characteristics, is untroubled by even the most advanced missile defense systems.”
While the Sarmat was well known to Western experts, the Putin highlighted a host of non-ballistic missiles — some of which were known and some of which are new — that would bypass American missile defenses. One such weapon is a nuclear-powered cruise missile — a prototype of which the Russians have already tested.
“One of them is a small-scale heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a missile like our latest X-101 air-launched missile or the American Tomahawk missile — a similar type but with a range dozens of times longer, dozens, basically an unlimited range,” Putin said. “It is a low-flying stealth missile carrying a nuclear warhead, with almost an unlimited range, unpredictable trajectory and ability to bypass interception boundaries. It is invincible against all existing and prospective missile defense and counter-air defense systems.”
Putin also highlighted the Status-6 intercontinental-range nuclear torpedo, which would be powered by a compact nuclear reactor and carry a massive 100-megaton warhead.
“We have developed unmanned submersible vehicles that can move at great depths—I would say extreme depths—intercontinentally, at a speed multiple times higher than the speed of submarines, cutting-edge torpedoes and all kinds of surface vessels, including some of the fastest,” Putin said.
“It is really fantastic. They are quiet, highly maneuverable and have hardly any vulnerabilities for the enemy to exploit. There is simply nothing in the world capable of withstanding them. Unmanned underwater vehicles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, which enables them to engage various targets, including aircraft groups, coastal fortifications and infrastructure.”
Putin also pointed to a heretofore-unknown hypersonic dual-capable nuclear and conventional air launched cruise missile called the Dagger — or Kinzhal in Russian — which Russia recently tested. Indeed, Putin said that the weapon is already starting to enter service with the Russian military.
“Its tests have been successfully completed, and, moreover, on December 1 of last year, these systems began their trial service at the airfields of the Southern Military District,” Putin said.
“The unique flight characteristics of the high-speed carrier aircraft allow the missile to be delivered to the point of discharge within minutes. The missile flying at a hypersonic speed, 10 times faster than the speed of sound, can also maneuver at all phases of its flight trajectory, which also allows it to overcome all existing and, I think, prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems, delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000 kilometers. We called this system Kinzhal.”
Meanwhile, Putin also mentioned that Russia has successfully tested a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, which could also be used to carry a nuclear payload to intercontinental ranges.
“A real technological breakthrough is the development of a strategic missile system with fundamentally new combat equipment — a gliding wing unit, which has also been successfully tested,” Putin said. “Let me assure you that we have all this and it is working well. Moreover, Russian industrial enterprises have embarked on the development of another new type of strategic weapon. We called it the Avangard.”
Above — Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin on March 1, 2018. Russian Ministry of Defense photo. At top — a hypersonic glide vehicle maneuvers past a missile defense bubble. Illustration via Russian state media
Is Putin bluffing?
Experts on the Russian military said that Putin is not exaggerating about Russia’s new weapons. Nor is the existence of most of these weapons a huge surprise.
“It’s a few new developments. I guess we knew about most of them, but not all,” Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, told The National Interest. “This is the first time I’ve heard about the nuclear powered cruise missile—or the Kinzhal system. Sarmat seems larger than we thought, although I would be skeptical about Putin’s numbers—200 tons missile and all that.”
Moreover, there is nothing to indicate that the Russia concepts are not viable—indeed most of these weapons are likely the real deal. “They apparently tested all that Putin showed, so it is all feasible,” Podvig said “Whether these things would make sense is another matter. I don’t think any of these are really necessary if we are talking about countering missile defense.”
Michael Kofman, a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses specializing in Russian military affairs, agreed that all of the weapons that Putin bragged about are feasible and are real programs. “Most of this is reality, it’s just a question of near or distant reality,” Kofman said.
Overall, there would not be immediate strategic implications for the United States in the short term. Indeed, there are no existing American countermeasures to defeat Russia’s existing nuclear arsenal.
“Insofar as there is no current or anticipated missile-defense counter to anything already in Russia’s strategic arsenal, no, nothing changes,” Joshua H. Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told The National Interest.
Podvig agreed with Pollack’s assessment — the overarching strategic balance would remain more or less stable. “It won’t change the balance in the sense that it will not drive quantitative increase in the number of missiles or warheads,” Podvig said. “But these systems will definitely complicate the situation and will make it more accident-prone.”
Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at MIT, said that one of the reasons the United States had abandoned nuclear-powered cruise missile development was the sheer risk due to accidents. “Seems like the [Russian] tests crashed,” Narang said. “And we tried it in the Cold War (Project Pluto), but it’s an unshielded small nuclear reactor on a cruise missile — it’s nuts.”
Russia’s nuclear-powered mini-sub. Illustration via Russian state media
There will, however, be longer-term implications as the new Russian weapons are fielded, particularly the nuclear-powered cruise missile and the hypersonic cruise missile. The new weapons could do severe damage to the current nuclear arms control regime.
“The interesting point, for me, is that the deployment of certain of these new systems would fall outside of New START limits, which were narrowly drawn to limit ballistic missiles (and nuclear-capable strategic bombers),” Pollack said.
“The U.S. even went on the record unilaterally asserting that boost-glide weapons fall outside of the definition of ‘ballistic missile.’ If it is not extended, New START will expire in a couple of years as it is. If we are to have strategic arms reductions after that, it will become important to negotiate a treaty that captures any new delivery modes that the Russians have successfully put into practice.”
“But it is not clear to me that the Republican Party has any interest in any type of arms control anymore; they have developed a preference for arms-racing, and no treaty can get through the Senate without at least some GOP support.”
In Kofman’s view, the threat is not as severe as one might expect despite Putin’s strongly-worded speech.
“Only the cruise missile poses a danger to the nuclear force balance down the line because it is a strategic system uncovered by arms control,” Kofman said. “However, the systems in question are incredibly expensive to be deployed in large quantities and some require unique platforms for delivery, so they are third-strike revenge weapons — for example the nuclear powered torpedo is a boutique capability.”
The problem is less on the operational side than on the arms control side of the equation — these new weapons will erode agreements such New START. Indeed, the main second order effect of Russia’s decision to develop these weapons is the fraying of the arms control regime.
“First and foremost is the steady melting away of arms control agreements, and their perceived utility in the eyes of peer nuclear powers,” Kofman said. “The stabilizing arrangements we made during the Cold War, for that nuclear age, are falling apart one after the other.”
The long-term risk to the strategic balance and the arms control regime are hard to calculate in the view of former Soviet and Russian nuclear arms negotiator Nikolai Sokov — now a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
“It is more difficult to calculate, more reasons for one or the other side to suspect the other of winning (disarming) first-strike capability, hence more reasons for an arms race,” Sokov said. “A serious in-depth arms control process is badly needed, but we are unlikely to see it any time soon. Implementation of most of these programs will take pretty long time, so in theory we can engage in talks that could stabilize the strategic relationship, but no one has serious taste for that these days.”
A maneuverable cruise missile bypassing missile defense bubbles. Illustration via Russian state media
Another potential issue for the new nuclear age is the speed of these new dual conventional and nuclear capable hypersonic weapons. While in the past leaders had some amount of time — perhaps as long as 20 minutes to 30 minutes — to make a decision to launch a retaliatory strike, with the development hypersonic weapons, that time is compressed.
Leaders might only have a few minutes — perhaps as little as five minutes in some cases — decide the fate of the planet. For some leaders, there will be a temptation to launch on warning before confirming if an incoming attack is nuclear or conventional because waiting might mean suffering a disarming first strike.
“The speed of the weapons, and the time of delivery of dual capable weapons is quite problematic from the standpoint of crisis stability,” Kofman said. “Hypersonic weapons pose serious questions about warning, decision making, and the like. We want more time to decide on how to respond, not less — but we are all working on less.”
In that sense, nuclear-tipped hypersonic weapons are highly destabilizing. Thus, arms control negotiations should take such weapons into account in the future, as Sokov noted.
Multiple independent reentry vehicles falling on Florida. Illustration via Russian state media
New Cold War?
While most of these new Russian weapons have been known to Western arms control experts for quite sometime, Putin’s speech took direct aim at the United States and come just before Russian presidential elections. The timing and the message are not a coincidence. Russia — and Putin himself — seem to be genuinely aggrieved by what the Kremlin sees as hostile American and Western actions.
Indeed, Putin emphasized that everything in his speech was intended to deter what he perceives as Western aggression towards Russia.
“I hope that everything that was said today would make any potential aggressor think twice, since unfriendly steps against Russia such as deploying missile defenses and bringing NATO infrastructure closer to the Russian border become ineffective in military terms and entail unjustified costs, making them useless for those promoting these initiatives,” Putin said.
Putin also took aim at the Pentagon’s new Nuclear Posture Review, which called for the development of a host of new American nuclear weapons — and lowers Washington’s nuclear threshold.
“We are greatly concerned by certain provisions of the revised nuclear posture review, which expand the opportunities for reducing and reduce the threshold for the use of nuclear arms,” Putin said. “Behind closed doors, one may say anything to calm down anyone, but we read what is written. And what is written is that this strategy can be put into action in response to conventional arms attacks and even to a cyber-threat.”
Putin reemphasized that Russia will respond to any nuclear attack with nuclear weapons.
“I should note that our military doctrine says Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons solely in response to a nuclear attack, or an attack with other weapons of mass destruction against the country or its allies, or an act of aggression against us with the use of conventional weapons that threaten the very existence of the state. This all is very clear and specific,” Putin said.
“As such, I see it is my duty to announce the following. Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, weapons of short, medium or any range at all, will be considered as a nuclear attack on this country. Retaliation will be immediate, with all the attendant consequences.”
Experts in Russia agreed that Putin was sending a very blunt message to the Trump administration — if Washington wants a new Cold War, Moscow is up for a rematch.
“The speech can be represented by one huge middle finger aimed at the U.S.,” Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, told The National Interest. “They declared a new Cold War on us. We accept.”