Russian Military Latest: The ‘priority’ emphasis on nuclear weapons (Part One – ICBMs)

Rod Thornton and Marina Miron, both of Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

Currently, the focus of Western militaries tends to be on how to best counter sub-threshold (‘hybrid’) warfare and how best to conduct, in US terms, multi-domain operations or, in UK thinking, multi-domain integration. Where the Russian military is concerned, however, the stated emphasis is somewhat different. In late December, President Vladimir Putin outlined ‘five key priorities’ for his Defence Ministry for the next five years. ‘The first task’, he said, ’is to maintain a high combat readiness of the nuclear forces [and to continue] the development of all components of the nuclear triad.’ This prioritisation comes out of a sense being expressed in the country over the last few years that international arms control regimes have been, to use Putin’s own word, ‘degrading’ and that Russia has therefore to rely for its ultimate defence, not on mutually agreed international treaties, but rather on having an enhanced nuclear deterrent capability.

In recent weeks, it has become clear from Russian media reports just how much investment there has been into this ‘triad’ (that is, into ground-, sea- and air-launched nuclear missiles). This post, the first in a series looking at Russian nuclear weapons, examines the latest reports that have appeared in the Russian media in relation specifically to the country’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Modernisation of the country’s ICBM capabilities, as the commander of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN) put it last month, is being made in order to ‘adequately meet the pace and volume of development of the enemy’s strategic weapons, reconnaissance and anti-missile defences.’ Thus, as ever, the Russian military is pointing to improvements in NATO capabilities (particularly those of the United States military) as the driver for its own capability enhancements.

New Russian ICBMs are currently being both tested and deployed. These latest models are designed to be harder for NATO ballistic missile defence (BMD) shields to both detect and destroy. They can do this by having launches that are difficult to detect (with shorter boost phases) and flight characteristics that make them harder to track. Moreover, these newer missiles have a greater payload capacity (‘throw-weight’) and can carry re-entry vehicles (or warheads) that are themselves (when deployed from their carrier missile) faster, more accurate and more ‘stealthy’ than hitherto.

In terms of the very latest ICBM ‘news’, it was announced at the beginning of December that the RVSN would, by the end of 2021, be totally re-equipped with the new Yars ICBM. These will replace the older models of the Topol missile family – both mobile and silo-launched variants. Mobile, truck-mounted ICBMs are far harder for NATO satellite and other reconnaissance assets to detect and thus they are far harder to target. Silo-based missiles, on the other hand, and while static, do have the advantage of being protected (at least to some degree) from countervailing nuclear attacks and from the actions of enemy special forces. So far, as of this month, 150 Yars have been delivered (see chart below).

The Topol and Yars are relatively small missiles in ICBM terms and the Yars delivered so far, according to the recent reports, can only carry one or two warheads. In regard to new ICBMs larger than the Yars, there is the soon-to-be deployed Sarmat heavy missile. The Russians are setting great store by the Sarmat. According to one Russian source from last week, ‘The main goal of this new missile system is to overcome all currently existing and promised missile defence systems and to deprive the enemy of the possibility of nuclear deterrence.’ One of the main advantages of the Sarmat is that its great range (18,000 km) means that it can be fired over both North and South poles where NATO missile defences are seen by the Russians to be at their weakest.

The Sarmat is currently being flight tested and is set to replace the 46 Voevoda silo-based missiles, which can each carry 10 warheads. The Sarmat is said to be able to carry up to 14 warheads. It will begin to be deployed from, it seems, 2023 onwards although one report from last week said this could be as early as 2022.

The other major advancement in terms of Russian ICBMs is coming with the introduction, as a nuclear payload, of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle. This re-entry vehicle – which will be delivered to any target area by a larger carrier missile – is again primarily designed to overcome NATO’s BMD shields. The Avangard is said to have a speed of Mach 28 (9.6km/sec) and, when manoeuvring at such speeds, makes interception very difficult. It has been estimated that an Avangard, when fired from Russian territory, can reach the continental United States in a mere 15 minutes.

The Avangard is already being deployed in the RVSN on its carrier missile, the old silo-based UR-100N. This missile has the NATO reporting name of Stiletto (and, strangely, the RVSN also now appears to be using this NATO name for it as well). The first RVSN regiment to be armed with the Avangard/Stiletto missiles received its first two in December 2019, with the third and fourth being delivered just last month. Two more are set to be deployed during 2021 meaning that a complete RVSN regiment will then be in operation. A further regiment (six missiles) is set to be equipped with the Avangard by 2025. While the Stiletto can currently only carry one Avangard glide vehicle, in future, and with the delivery of the Sarmat heavy ICBM, two (or possibly four) Avangard glide vehicles can then be carried as a payload.

As things stand, Russia can be said to have the following ground-based ICBMs:

  • 46  Voevoda silo-based
  • 60  Topol-M silo-based
  • 45  Topol road-mobile
  • 18  Topol-M road mobile
  • 135  Yars road-mobile
  • 14  Yars silo-based
  • 4  UR100N (Stiletto) with Avangard.

The fact that Russia has several models of ICBM is seen by the commander of the RVSN, Col-Gen Sergei Karakaev, to be a distinct positive. This is because NATO BMD shields would have to be configured to cope with a range of different threat profiles created by each missile system.

In terms of its own ground-launched ICBMs, NATO has only one type – the 400 or so Minuteman silo-based missiles in the United States. (The US also has submarine-launched nuclear missiles (SLBMs), as do the UK and France. Latest news on Russia’s SLBMs will be discussed in a future report on this blog site).

While all this spending on new ICBMs speaks of some largesse, the Russian government, it should be pointed out, is being constrained to some degree in its ICBM spending. The much-vaunted Barguzin rail-based system that sees ICBMs being launched from railway wagons appears, according to latest reports, to have been mothballed – at least for now. Also reportedly sidelined is development of the Rubezh road-mobile missile.

Advancements in Russian nuclear capabilities in terms of ground-based systems are not limited just to the missiles themselves. Improvements have also been made in the command-and-control (C2) arrangements designed to increase both the speed and security of decision-making in regard to the use of the RVSN’s missiles. Last week it was announced that C2 for the RVSN had now ‘completely transitioned to digital technologies’. Moreover, the RVSN forces also deployed in 2020, and in five of the 12 RVSN divisions, the Peresvet laser complex. This can be used to blind US and NATO optical surveillance systems mounted on either satellites or, in future, reconnaissance drones that are designed to track mobile Russian ICBMs. If these missiles cannot be tracked (and thus made targetable) then their deterrence capacity is increased exponentially.

It is clear that, overall, Putin’s stated ‘priority’ of developing Russia’s nuclear capabilities is being backed up by the requisite investment in new ICBMs and attendant systems. It is also clear that the Russian media reporting of the improvements being made reflects a pride in the power and sophistication of the RVSN. The Russian media is quick to highlight the advantages that the RVSN has over its Western counterparts. And whatever excuse the Russian government and military might give for why Russia needs to modernise its nuclear arsenal it does seem clear that NATO is perhaps not the strongest player on this particular field. The danger now is that the likes of the US and UK – and especially given that the START Treaty limiting nuclear weapons expires on 5 February – may want to play catch-up and become sucked into a new, expensive and dangerous nuclear arms race.

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