Interview: Dmitry Stefanovich on Russia’s Nuclear Forces and Doctrine

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Interview: Dmitry Stefanovich on Russia’s Nuclear Forces and Doctrine

Will the ongoing modernization the Russian nuclear forces impact global strategic stability?

Interview: Dmitry Stefanovich on Russia’s Nuclear Forces and Doctrine
Credit: Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH)

The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady talks with Dmitry Stefanovich about the impact of the modernization of the Russian nuclear forces on global strategic stability, the role of nuclear weapons within Russian military strategy overall, and how it has been shifting over the last decades as a result of purported doctrinal shifts and new technologies. Stefanovich is an independent military-political affairs analyst and an expert with the Russian International Affairs Council. His main areas of study are strategic stability, nuclear weapons and delivery systems, disruptive technologies and regional security dynamics.  He is the author of numerous articles and briefs on these subjects and has also written on nuclear issues for The Diplomat.

In the interview, Stefanovich argues that Russian nuclear modernization is principally driven by the perceived need to ensure a survivable nuclear deterrent force capable of delivering nuclear retaliation. In that sense not much appears to have changed since Soviet days.

The Diplomat: The Federation of American Scientists estimates that the Russian strategic and non-strategic nuclear forces possess roughly 4,490 nuclear warheads, of which around 1,600 are strategic warheads. Overall, Russia still possesses roughly 6,400 warheads. Can you briefly outline the composition and organizational structure of the Russian nuclear forces?

Stefanovich: To make it simple, let’s separate “strategic” and “less strategic” (I don’t like the word “tactical”) nuclear weapons and delivery systems as a start. Strategic systems are relatively easy – they are described in the New START, and are a mix of:

  • Intercontinental ballistic missiles (silo-based and road-mobile) under the command of Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF/RVSN) accounting for around 40 percent of strategic nuclear warheads,
  • Submarine-launched ballistic missiles under the Navy (with SSBNs separated between North and Pacific fleets) accounting for around 30 percent strategic nuclear warheads,
  • Heavy bombers (although “strategic missile-carriers,” frequently used by the Russian media and military spokespeople, might be a more correct term) under the Russian Air Force armed with long-range cruise missiles and remaining nuclear warheads.

Going to “less strategic” nuclear delivery systems starting with the Russian Air Force might be a good bridge here, as we have a borderline weapons delivery system – the Tu-22M3 long-range bomber– which does not fall into New START “heavy bomber” definition. Most of the tactical fixed-wing aircraft in the Russian Air Force are also believed to be capable of carrying nuclear-tipped weapons, although exact numbers are nowhere to be found. In the naval domain, nuclear-capable anti-ship cruise missiles (for surface, submarine and coastal launchers) and depth charges are believed to remain a possible force multiplier in a major conflict.

In the land forces the Iskander-M missile systems is likely capable of launching nuclear-tipped short-range ballistic and cruise missiles. As for “nuclear artillery,” the reports seem somewhat conflicting: relevant nuclear warhead design units are no longer operational, but the “super-heavy” systems initially designed for such missions re-entered service rather recently – although it might be linked to progress in development and production of conventional guided artillery munitions in the first place.

Nuclear warheads for air and missile defense systems exist as well.

Overall numbers of these type of nuclear weapons are regularly said to be only one-fourth of what was in service within the Soviet Army, and all of them are non-deployed, located at “central storages.”

The 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense is the entity that carries out maintenance and operations related to nuclear warheads, although actual functions and responsibilities are shared with operators of relevant services, and there is no open information on how it is actually done these days.

Can you briefly outline ongoing major modernization efforts of the Russian nuclear forces? What part of the Russian nuclear triad is receiving the highest priority in that respect?

The modernization efforts address the two major needed capabilities of nuclear weapons: survivability and assured delivery. With that in mind, new delivery systems are designed to be more reliable, less detectable, fly faster and longer, and carry a bigger punch. In terms of actual systems, I think it might be useful to separate the “mainstream” and “magic wand” systems. In fact, it is complicated to give a priority to any part of the triad in that regard. In the first category main efforts are focused on the “Yars” (SS-27 Mod.2) ICBM in road-mobile and silo-based variants (and its subcategories sometimes referred to as “Yars-S” and “Yars-M”), “Bulava” (SS-N-32) SLBM and its carriers (Borei and Borei-A class ballistic missile submarines), and Kh-101/102 (AS-23A/-23B) air-launched cruise missile and relevant upgrades for Tu-160 (“Blackjack”) and Tu-95MS (“Bear-H”) bombers. The “Sarmat” heavy ICBM is somewhere in the middle of its development process, and it remains to be seen how many of those and with what payload type will be eventually deployed.

Simultaneously, a set of much more sophisticated systems is on currently on different stages of development and deployment: “Avangard” missile system with a gliding winged reentry vehicle (basically a hypersonic glide vehicle), the “Poseidon” multirole ocean system (a nuclear-powered, large, unmanned underwater vehicle, also referred to as an intercontinental torpedo), and “Burevestnik,” a supposed unlimited range nuclear-propelled cruise missile. These weapons have a long history, and the main driver behind their development is the perceived threat of future U.S. missile defense.

Another important area is the development and modernization of “enabling” capabilities, i.e. early warning systems (ground and especially space echelon), airborne command posts, airborne early warning and surveillance, airborne tankers, general purpose naval forces to ensure secure deployment of ballistic missile submarines, all sorts of patrol vehicles and static defenses for road-mobile and silo-based ICBMs, and related nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) networks.

Explain the warfighting doctrine of the Russian nuclear forces to the degree this is possible. In general terms, why is doctrine so important for nuclear strategists? What have been some of the major shifts on that front over the past two decades?

The “official” name of the Russian nuclear doctrine is “reciprocal counter-strike,” which roughly corresponds to “launch under attack” with some “launch on warning” elements. So, the idea, at least the way it is explained, is to be capable of launching a full-scale nuclear strike against the adversary only after there are no doubts that the adversary had already launched missiles against targets in Russia. It is important because of the direct effect on force structure. As I’ve explained earlier, survivability is one of the main drivers, and it can be achieved by being mobile, concealed, and/or hardened.

The major shifts were related to the way the nuclear use conditions were described in the general Military Doctrine, with shifts from rather vague formulas in 1993 to more or less traditional Soviet-era ones in the 2000s and from there on, resembling the “old” NATO-type takes of the 1980s, which foresaw nuclear strikes when the existence of the state is threatened even by conventional-only aggression. The most interesting development happened after the 2014 update, when a concept of “strategic non-nuclear deterrence” got introduced. It is still somewhat unclear, especially given that the weapons usually associated with it (Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles, Kalibr submarine-launched cruise missiles etc.) are by design dual-capable, but it provides an opening for continued decrease in reliance on nuclear weapons in Russian military strategy.

To what degree do new technologies such as artificial intelligence and strategic cyber capabilities impact Russian nuclear strategic thinking and force posture?

“Artificial intelligence in Military Affairs,” as well as cybertechnologies – or “information-communication technologies,” as it it referred to in Russia – have long been understood as an important factor for strategic balance and nuclear capabilities. However, they are not considered to be extremely disruptive: AI can contribute to both offensive and defensive capabilities, and in the cyber domain the main challenge is to keep the nuclear command, control and communications networks separated and protected. Electronic warfare is another closely linked area. So, the bottom line is – new technologies are addressed, but there seems to be neither panic nor hype. Still, it is important to have a professional dialogue on these subjects, so to clarify intentions and avoid threat misperceptions.

Has the U.S. Department of Defense’s latest Nuclear Posture Review published in 2018 had a major impact on Russian thinking about nuclear war?

I don’t think so. Actually, I believe the main takeaway from the NPR-2018 is that it reminded everyone that nuclear weapons are still here, and ready to be used, and that they won’t disappear by themselves. So, the challenges of nuclear deterrence and nuclear disarmament must be addressed seriously and properly. Nevertheless, some parts (such as low-yield nuclear weapons, nuclear response possibility to all type of attacks, including cyber, and “escalate-to-deescalate” claims) raised brows and generally puzzled the Russian side, as those might actually lower the nuclear use threshold.

What can you tell us about the continuing debate among analysts in the West regarding Russia’s purported low threshold for the nuclear weapons use known as the “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, i.e. striking NATO forces with tactical nuclear weapons to end a war Russia is in danger of losing?

This idea might have been put forward by some military thinkers in Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the NATO advantage in conventional capabilities over Russia was probably the highest. But it never was the official concept, and with the rapid growth in Russian capabilities (especially in such areas as air defense, long range precision strike, recon-strike systems, and electronic warfare), such a scenario looks absolutely impossible. Also, I don’t think that anyone in Russia actually believes that a full-scale conflict with NATO might be limited to a single theater. Having said that, the idea of a “signal nuclear strike” against some uninhabited area is another issue, and probably that might be closer to the reality. Not as a method of coercion, but as a way to demonstrate that the retaliation is inevitable.

What will be the impact of the end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on ongoing modernization efforts?

The Russian military budget, as well as capacities of the country’s defense industry and design bureaus, not to mention well-trained personnel to handle nuclear weapons, are limited. As a result, if we see U.S.  INF-range missile deployments and Russia follows suit, it might have a highly negative effect on Russian strategic forces modernization. It would not add to stability anywhere, and the security of countries hosting aforementioned U.S. weapons will suffer the most.

What do you assess the prospects for future Sino-Russian cooperation in the nuclear realm in the coming years given that Moscow agreed to help Beijing set up a ballistic missile early warning network? 

There is growing information and probably some technology exchange in the strategic domain between Russia and China, but I doubt there will be an explicitly nuclear weapons-related cooperation anytime soon, other than bashing the destabilizing effects of certain U.S. moves including on missile defense and INF-range weapons systems This year’s first joint Sino-Russian strategic bomber patrol is nonetheless a noteworthy development. It might also be possible that bilateral discussions on nuclear doctrines and postures might eventually lead to broader solutions for multilateral and asymmetrical arms control.

Are ballistic missiles defense systems good or bad for strategic stability, according to Russian military thinking?

Definitely bad. There is no doubt about it, especially if we speak about strategic missile defenses, with forward-deployed assets away from national territory. Another area of concern is the possibility of the deployment of missile defense systems in space. Such a move might effectively ruin any possibility of keeping military conflict from entering that domain.

Has the possible impact of hypersonic weapons on nuclear deterrence and strategic stability been overhyped by defense analysts? What is the Russian perspective?

It was (and still is) overhyped, as there is limited advantage over long-existing delivery systems, and even some disadvantage, e.g., the terminal speed of “traditional” ICBM reentry vehicles is higher, while maneuvering might result in less precision. The biggest challenge for the defending party is target and payload ambiguity, but this problem can be addressed by more or less traditional transparency and confidence-building measures – starting from declarations of intended missions of hypersonic weapons when they are introduced. From the Russian perspective the hypersonic weapons fulfill one major task – penetration of any possible missile defense.

Does the Russian military think it can win a nuclear war?

I doubt they do, but they definitely plan to not lose one.

In your opinion, what is the one thing Western analysts consistently get wrong when assessing Russian nuclear policy and strategy?

There are several opinions worth mentioning here, but probably the “lower nuclear threshold” is the major one, overshadowing everything else. I think that there is hardly any Russian soldier, officer, general, or civil servant who ever had anything to do with nuclear weapons and still wants to use them in a situation other than as a retaliation after full-scale enemy nuclear attack.