A frame grab from a Russian Ministry of Defense video shows the new Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as it undergoes its second test launch at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwest Russia on March 30, 2018. The Sarmat is part of Russia’s new arsenal announced in 2018 by President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Frame grab from Russia Ministry of Defense video via RT
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Strategy & Policy

April 1, 2020

What Are Putin’s Five New Nukes For?

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a grand announcement in March 2018, declaring that Russia is developing five new nuclear or nuclear-powered weapons. The new nukes would be in addition to Russia’s extant, START-compliant strategic nuclear forces and thousands of nonstrategic nuclear weapons ranging from torpedoes to artillery and short-range missiles.

Russia’s existing nuclear force already holds the U.S. at risk. These new weapons wouldn’t appreciably change the nuclear deterrence equation. So why does Putin need them?

The Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security took up that question, in conjunction with experts from Los Alamos National Laboratory. In a March report, “Russia’s Exotic Nuclear Weapons and Implications for the United States and NATO,” 28 strategic arms experts confessed they’re still scratching their heads. It’s hard to see the rationale for expending so much Russian treasure on a prodigious nuclear modernization program that doesn’t really give Russia more capability than it already has, participants said.

Perhaps the most plausible rationale could be “a genuine paranoia about the vulnerability of Russia’s nuclear deterrent and a desire to signal Russia’s great-power status to foreign and domestic audiences.”

A second would be a desire to overwhelm U.S. and allied theater missile defenses. A third, that the new weapons could be used as coercive measures in a crisis. The new nukes could be a backstop to Russia’s conventional weakness as it threatens countries on its borders or to achieve what Russia oxymoronically has called “de-escalation:” the use of low-yield nuclear weapons to scare adversaries into capitulation to avoid all-out nuclear war.

Putin may also see the weapons as a counter to perceived threats from the U.S. and its allies, which he may fear are trying to back a “color revolution” against Russia to achieve regime change there. While these are not stated U.S. policies, the report states, Russian officials “appear to be genuinely fearful of the possible spread of democracy to Russia with U.S. backing.”

On the more speculative side, the Atlantic Council report posited that Russia could seek a “decapitation” strike against Washington, D.C., in the event of a war with NATO. “To be sure, this would be an extreme scenario, but military plans and postures are sometimes developed to deal with remote, but important, contingencies,” the report noted. Still, a nuclear cruise missile deployed from a commercial vessel could achieve similar effects less expensively.

More mercenary explanations for Russia’s new programs could include a make-work program for Russia’s defense industrial base or to promote foreign sales of Russian military hardware.

“It is unclear,” the report concluded, “what advantages these new systems provide.”

Counters, And Counter-Counters

How should the U.S. respond to Russia’s new weapons? The Atlantic Council offers three options: “Ignoring, or even ridiculing, Russia’s new systems; pushing to include a wider range of systems in negotiations over New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) renewal; and strengthening the U.S. and NATO deterrence posture, including by continuing to introduce low-yield warheads to the U.S. nuclear arsenal.” This last step was actually called for in the 2018 Nuclear Posture review, drawing widespread debate in Congress and criticism from some think tanks.

Russia has relied on its nuclear arsenal in the post-Cold War era to preserve its status as a world power and, in recent years has made “explicit military threats” to use it, the Atlantic Council report pointed out. Recent Russian exercises have concluded with simulated nuclear strikes on European targets, and Putin placed his nuclear forces on alert during the Georgian and Ukraine crises.

Viewed in this context, “Russia is building the nuclear force posture necessary to back up this ambitious strategy,” the report said. The Atlantic Council also noted that even while the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty was in effect, Russia cheated, “developing and deploying multiple batteries of nuclear-capable, intermediate-range, ground-launched cruise missiles.”

Strategic Debutantes

Russia’s new nuclear weapons are:

  • Sarmat ICBM: Replaces the SS-18 heavy ICBM, code-named Satan by NATO. It can carry either 10 reentry vehicles or at least one hypersonic glide vehicle. Russia has said it will begin production of Sarmat this year. Plans call for six Sarmat regiments, the first to be deployed in 2021.
  • Avangard Hypersonic Glide Vehicle: This is a very long-range, maneuverable weapon that would be difficult to defend against. It would be pushed to hypersonic speed by Sarmat, eventually, but in the near-term, it has been fitted to the SS-19, code-named Stiletto by NATO. Russia tested Avangard successfully in 2016 and 2018 and said it had activated two in December.
  • Kinzhal hypersonic missile: This weapon would be carried to altitude on wing pylons or in bomb bays. Russia has boasted about having developed such a weapon before the U.S.
  • Burevestnik nuclear-powered, long-range missile: Putin claims this weapon has unlimited range. Code-named SSC-X-9 “Skyfall”by NATO, its existence was disclosed in 2018 when Putin showed a video animation of the missile traversing huge distances on a map—crossing Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, and parts of South America before approaching a target in Florida. Russia claims the weapon features a low-radar cross section.
  • Poseidon nuclear-armed, autonomous underwater drone: Previously known as “Status-6,” six of these torpedoes could be carried by a Russian guided-missile submarine. Armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead, it would operate at depths too deep to use satellite navigation, rendering it an imprecise weapon intended for use against a large target, such as a coastal city. The Atlantic Council report speculated that Poseidon could be “laden with a multimegaton warhead seeded with cobalt—which would result in particularly deadly nuclear fallout.”

The report noted that Russia is having trouble with developing some of these weapons—Skyfall, particularly, had a noteworthy accident. But Russia has been “comfortable rushing weapons systems into the field at a pace that would not be possible in the United States,” the authors noted.

In response, the Atlantic Council report recommends the U.S. Intelligence Community invest resources to capture “more detailed information about the origins of these programs, and what prompted Putin to unveil them in a major public address in March 2018.”

The authors also suggest the U.S. seek to reassure Russia that it is not seeking a first-strike capability while modernizing the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal. Failing that, the U.S. should proceed on the findings of the Nuclear Posture Review, the Atlantic Council said, to “strengthen their deterrent and defensive measures” and “develop low-yield capabilities.”

The report also urged the U.S. to develop its own hypersonic missiles and defensive countermeasures to such weapons built by Russia and China, following a “deterrence-by-denial” strategy. The U.S. should also develop countermeasures to Poseidon, it said.

“Fond hopes” that the world could be rid of nuclear weapons after the Cold War “have not been borne out by the facts,” the report said. “Great power competition has returned, and with it, the importance of nuclear weapons to international politics.” Such weapons “remain the ultimate instrument of military force, and Russia is emphasizing nuclear force as a central pillar of its military strategy.” Western leaders, therefore, must again make effective nuclear deterrence the “foremost priority of the NATO alliance.”

The EU’s Capability Deficits

The latest comprehensive analysis of the global military balance from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) suggests America’s NATO allies will have to invest more in defense if the U.S. continues to focus on the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, NATO allies may fall short by a third of a trillion dollars’ worth of capability in “enablers” alone if the U.S. devotes the bulk of its military attention elsewhere.

Since 2019, global defense spending grew by 4 percent, in 2015 dollars, according to the IISS’s annual assessment, “The Military Balance 2020.” This was the largest increase in 10 years. Non-U.S. NATO defense spending was back to where it was before the 2008 financial crisis.

The emergence of a new economic crisis with the global COVID-19 pandemic raises new questions about NATO’s ability to maintain such spending. Time will tell, but as governments pour funds into bailouts and emergency measures, there could well be inevitable calls to curb spending on defense.

“The Military Balance 2020,” which was published before the pandemic hit, paints a picture of what could happen in the event the U.S. becomes fully engaged in a Pacific war and cannot respond in full force to a European conflict. In such case, NATO allies would be operating at a serious deficiency in key enablers, such as mobility, airborne tankers, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, the IISS pointed out.

Indeed, that is also the case with allies in other regions, such as the Middle East. “It may transpire that Washington cannot always supply capabilities needed by allies and partners,” the report said.

The IISS estimates that it would cost America’s NATO allies between $288 billion and $357 billion “to fill gaps highlighted by a scenario where they would have to defend their territory without U.S. support against a state-level attack.”

Mobility, for example, is a key area where NATO partners are badly underinvested. The entire European Union tanker/transport fleet totaled just 49 aircraft in 2019, less than a tenth the size of the U.S. fleet, which numbered 555.

“Were a crisis to erupt that required rapid mobility of U.S. equipment, for instance in the Asia-Pacific, it is highly likely that the U.S. would look to move relevant enabling assets from where they are currently stationed.”

While great power competition “continues to dominate long-term Western defense policymaking and procurement … there is now less apparent coherence than before in terms of political responses,” the IISS said. The growing disharmony evidenced by French President Emmanuel Macron’s famous declaration that NATO is “brain dead,” means NATO allies will be challenged to overcome these problems.

The fundamental problem is that military assets are limited. If the U.S. is suddenly faced with a conflict in the Asia-Pacific, it may have no choice but to move ISR, mobility, and other assets out of theaters where they have historically been available, sounding a wake-up call to allies that have grown too reliant on those capabilities.